1. Part 1 by Maya Perez
2. Part 2 by Maya Perez
3. Part 3 by Maya Perez
"Basic De - mo - li - tions." Jun slowly read the title out loud as her hand reached out to take the book from the shelf.
This was the one, she was sure of it. The book she saw a few days ago in Ken and Joe's room. And she knew that this book, out of all those there, definitely had something to do with Nambu's mysterious project.
Jun understood that she and her brother were one of the few people not directly involved who even knew the project existed. They hadn't been meant to know, but they learned of it inadvertently - through curiosity and luck. And even before she realized its existence, it had been responsible for giving her and Jinpei a chance at a better life and freedom. It had also been responsible for giving them that which they'd wanted most - a family.
Taking a last look around before totally committing herself, she took the book off the shelf. She moved to one of the large leather chairs in the back and grabbing her dictionary, curled up in one of them, and gingerly opened the newly acquired book.
The ability to read was yet another gift given to them by Nambu and indirectly by his project as well. In Tebet, all she could have hoped for was a life of slavery and submission, and the loss of the only person who meant the world to her. Yet her fate found a different path the moment they met Nambu, the world-renowned scientist of the ISO. Through him, Jun and her brother found a home, a home with people who cared about them and whom they could care about.
Since the day the decision was made that they'd be allowed to permanently stay, Jun had pushed herself to study, absorb, and learn. Though she found it hard to believe it at first, she came to understand the world really was full of possibilities, even for women. Unlike where she came from, where her prospects were few and unpleasant, here she could be or do anything she applied herself to do. Anything at all. Sometimes it made her dizzy thinking about it. Who at the monastery would have ever thought such a thing possible?
Jinpei had already decided he wanted to be five or six things - a pilot, a scientist, a racecar driver, a fisherman. The list grew every day. As for her own decision, the choices were so many she didn't know if she could ever pick one. Her brothers, the ones that had become part of her heart's family with Jinpei, had already made their choices on what they would become. All three had been chosen to be an important part of Nambu's project. They would be trained and tested until they became the protectors of the Earth. They would fight the evil men that had decided to twist the world to meet their own ends.
Still, though they had chosen and seemed content by their choice, it often disturbed her that by making this choice, they'd also chosen to learn how to kill.
For as long as she could remember, the monks always preached that killing was wrong, that it was against the nature of things. But the boys had to learn to kill, because the evil ones might not leave them any choice. So they learned in order to survive against them. It was almost as if you had to commit evil to fight evil.
And so her brothers trained, and trained hard.
Due to her and Jinpei's discovery of the project and some of the training for it, the two of them were allowed to join part of their brothers' morning routine, the part that was already familiar to them - practicing martial arts. But there were many other things the three of them did that Jun and Jinpei weren't able to share in. The teachings in the book she held in her hands was one of them.
Until recently, the fact the others pursued the project without her and Jinpei hadn't really bothered them. She'd been more than satisfied just to share a part of their lives. She'd been happy they were there and they belonged with them. A couples of weeks before though, all that changed....
Joe, Ryu, and Ken never spoke to them of what they did in the training she and Jinpei didn't share with them. They never spoke of what things they learned. Though Jinpei asked occasionally, it had never been a concern of hers. That is until she started noticing how stiff they were coming into class each morning, until she caught glimpses of bruises beneath their gi's as they fought on the mats.
Something new had been added, something changed - and it worried her. It was why she had started paying so much attention to what they were doing, why she was sitting here trying to read a book with so many things she didn't understand. Jinpei asked Ken once about the bruises. Ken had just smiled a small smile and told him he'd been sloppy during a training session and that was all. Jun didn't miss the look of relief on his face when Jinpei took his answer at face value and let the matter drop. Joe and Ryu were as tight-lipped as Ken. If they didn't trust them enough to tell them, then Jun was sure it wasn't something good at all.
Jun looked up from the difficult book, pushing aside her troubled thoughts, her brother zooming in around the corner looking for her.
"I - I found them, Neechan. I found them." The small boy stared at her, his wide eyes filled with a mixture of fear and excitement.
Jun felt a rush of apprehension cut through her. "Did they see you?"
"No, Neechan." Jinpei shook his head too excited to take offense.
She frowned, not understanding where his fear was coming from. "Did something happen, Jinpei?"
He shook his head again. "No." He came forward and took her hand. "Come see. Come see."
Jun reluctantly closed her books and set them aside. The boys were keeping this purposely from them, did she really have a right to try and find out what they were up to?
Jinpei tugged impatiently at her hand. "Come see, Neechan."
Jun sighed and gave in. She might not have the right, but she still wanted to know.
The two of them moved through the large house's familiar halls toward the kitchen. Jinpei stopped and cautiously peeked around the corner to make sure Pho, their Vietnamese keeper, wasn't there. Beckoning to Jun, he slipped inside and quickly headed to the small half-room half-hallway on the back right hand side of the kitchen.
Not long after they first arrived in Nambu's home, Jinpei had stumbled onto the secret door located in this room. It was how they first came to find out about the project. This door, like many other unseen features of the house, had been built to protect and hide the project.
Jinpei hit the hidden switch on the wall and the secret entrance to the lower levels of the house opened. Jun shut it behind them once they went on to the stairs concealed beyond.
"This way, Neechan." He hurried down the stairs and turned left at the landing.
They moved quietly down the corridor, passing the matted room the five of them normally used for their morning practice. Jinpei led Jun to another stairwell going down. She felt her pulse beat faster.
At the landing to the second underground level, Jinpei hesitated and took a quick peek down each way. Finding the hallways empty, he moved on again, taking Jun's hand in his own.
Though the two of them did occasionally go with the others to some of the lower levels to play down at the pool or use some of the exercise equipment, she had never seen much of this second level. What was here was one of the many secrets she didn't know about.
Walking silently, Jinpei led her to the right and around the corner at the far end. His pace dropped dramatically as they neared the second corner. A door stood slightly ajar on the left and he cautiously guided her there.
Jun felt her pulse quicken again as she realized this was the place. Whatever the boys had been up to, the answers were there. The hesitation she felt upstairs on finding out this secret was gone.
Jinpei peeked in through the slit opening at the door and then hunkered down so Jun could move to see as well. Standing over him to take a look, she gazed into a dimly lit room that was thin and long. A nerve-numbing hum poured out at them from inside from a large row of mainframe computers sitting against the wall beside them. On the other side of the room, Jun saw a large console that was almost as long as the room itself, which was filled with dials, buttons, and readouts. Pham, their martial arts teacher, stood before the controls occasionally moving a knob or flipping a switch. He stared raptly before him, out through a thick, long window out into a brightly lit room. What Jun saw there trapped and held her gaze.
The boys were in that room - Ken, Joe, and Ryu - all three wearing tight fitting body suits. The place was large and tall. Jun could see the three of them in her partial view, running, leaping, and mostly dodging strange looking poles that shot out unexpectedly at them from the floor, walls, and ceiling. The entire room was covered by a giant grid of small squares, and on the small lines she spotted what looked like a small car; a bright red handkerchief attached to its roof.
All three of the boys kept avoiding the thrusting poles while at the same time chased the small car to try and grab the handkerchief it carried.
Jun subconsciously held her breath as the poles shot out like angry snakes. The boys deftly avoided them with practiced ease as they sought to grab their goal. Joe leapt at one of the poles as it came out and used it as a propelling point to leap towards the fast moving car. His fingers grazed the handkerchief as the speeding car went past.
Cursing loudly, he twisted in mid-air to position himself to land on his feet. A thrusting pole clipped him on the shoulder for his trouble. Jun flinched, knowing he'd have a respectable bruise as his reward.
Ken ignored the car after seeing Joe's failure and maneuvered himself to Ryu's side. After a moment of hurried conversation while dodging more poles, Jun saw Ryu nod. As the heavy sized boy cupped his hands together, Ken put a foot inside them. Ryu gave him a boost upwards. The dark haired Ken sped through the air towards the moving car. A pole swished out suddenly at him from the side. Ken twisted his body to avoid it and then swung on another pole to retrieve his lost momentum.
Ken bounced hard against the padded ceiling, but came away with the handkerchief in his hand. The poles instantly stopped for a moment and the slowly retreated back into the wall. Ken landed, breathing hard, a half grin on his face.
Jun pulled away from the door and sat down against the wall and forced herself to breathe. Shakily, she closed her eyes and tried to slow her speeding heart as it thumped against her chest. So, that was it. That's what they'd been up to. Now she understood the fear mixed excitement she'd seen on Jinpei's face. She felt it herself. A queer sense of foreboding and apprehension swept through her. That was for the project, it was all for the project. How much harder would it still get for them?
Jun opened her eyes at her brother's hurried whisper. Jinpei still stood at the door, his eyes glued to what was inside. The humming from the computers increased making her teeth ache. Jun's heart skipped a beat as she suddenly realized they'd started again.
Biting her lip, she got up from the floor and moved to take a look again.
The game had changed. This time, dummies had been placed on the runners in the floor. The dummies were vaguely human shaped and colored a dull brown. In the middle of what could pass for a head, was a large red dot. The dummy farthest in the back had a red handkerchief sticking from a ring that protruded from its stomach.
Like a crushing wave, the dummies shot forward towards the three boys. In a flurry of motion, the boys leapt up and flipped into the middle of them. One by one, they smashed with foot or fist each of the dummies' red dots. The moment they hit them, the dummy would come to a stop.
After what felt to Jun like an eternity, the boys were able to disable enough of the dummies to enable Ryu to reach for the handkerchief and yank it loose. The moment the handkerchief was gone, the rest of the dummies stopped.
Ryu used the handkerchief to wipe at his sweating face, all three of them swaying on their feet exhausted. From the corner of her eye, Jun noticed Pham's hand flick a switch on the console.
"Well done," he said. "I believe that will be enough for today."
Sighing with sudden relief, all three boys dropped down to the mats to rest.
Jun figured it was time for them to get out of there.
"Jinpei." Hissing his name quietly, Jun grabbed for her brother's arm and pulled him away. As soon as they were far enough that they wouldn't be heard, they ran for it. They didn't stop until they'd made it all the way back to the kitchen.
"You mustn't talk about what we saw, " Jun steadied herself against her brother and tried to get her breath back. "To no one, understand?"
Jinpei nodded quickly, his eyes bright.
"Neechan, why were they doing that? What is it for?" he asked.
"It's part of Nambu's project, Jinpei." The words sent a chill up her spine as she said them.
"Still, couldn't we do it too? Couldn't we help?"
Jun sighed, having heard these questions from him many times before. "You know we can't. We're not even supposed to talk about it, remember? The project is not for us."
"But, neechan, I know we could do it." His small face stared at her own, full of conviction.
Jun wasn't too sure he was right and wasn't about to say so. "That was hakase's decision, Jinpei. So that's that."
Her brother's lower lip quivered. He looked like he might try to argue the point. Jun sent him a stern glance to try and cut him off.
"So there you are!"
Both of them looked up at the unexpected voice.
"I've been looking for you." Pho smiled her gap filled smile from the kitchen doorway. "What have the two of you been up to today?"
Jun saw Jinpei's face light up at the question even as his mouth opened to tell all. Jun quickly reached out and thumped him in the arm and sent him a quick warning look. She hoped Pho hadn't seen it.
Jinpei's excitement fell. "Oh, nothing," he replied.
Pho's white brow rose for a moment but she asked no more about it. "Would you two help me with the table? I was about to start dinner."
"Sure, Pho-san." The two of them moved to do as she'd asked.
Once the table had been set, Jinpei took his normal position by Pho's side so he could watch and help her cook. Though Jun had no real interest in the preparation of meals, her brother had turned out to be quite the opposite.
Jun sat down at her place at the table, sure that Jinpei's seemingly unassailable appetite might just have something to do with his continuing interest.
As she continued to wait, Jun found her gaze roaming towards the hallway leading to the secret stairs. Too vividly, she recalled the blow Joe had taken. How many others had they incurred today that she knew nothing about? Jun suddenly felt an intense need to see the three of them, to make sure for herself they were all right. She tried her best to squelch the feeling, knowing there was nothing she could do but wait.
Dinner was just about ready when Pham came into the kitchen followed by the boys. Jun's eyes anxiously looked over them, trying to fathom what she could of their health. Ryu seemed to have picked up a slight limp, but no other injuries were obvious. Though she didn't entirely understand it, it made her worry more.
Jun was quiet during dinner, though Jinpei and the others were as lively as ever. She just couldn't get rid of the fact that even though the project was none of her concern, the boys were getting hurt because of it. It was silly to feel this way, and she knew it, but somehow she'd never thought of them suffering for Nambu's project. And that in itself was stupid. Hadn't she seen war first hand in Tebet? Why had she thought that Nambu's Project would end up any differently?
"You don't look like you're feeling all that hungry tonight, Jun. Is everything all right?" Pho looked down at her, her brow slightly creased with concern.
Jun focused back on her surroundings realizing she hadn't been paying that much attention. She stuttered trying to recover. "Y - yes, I'm fine. Could I have more casserole? It's really good." Jun grabbed for her plate and offered it to Pho so she could give her more.
The old woman hesitated for a moment, studying her face, and then scooped her another portion of the tuna concoction.
Jun tried to stop thinking and instead pushed her concentration on eating all that was before her.
After dinner, she joined the others to watch a documentary on the Great Pyramids and another on life along the Nile, before being shooed off to bed for the night. She didn't sleep well, her night full of restless dreams.
Jun was quiet the next day at breakfast, her mood still subdued. This earned her a number of querying looks from her brother and Pho, but they left her alone.
Her breakfast sat like a lump in her stomach as she and Jinpei made their way downstairs for their morning martial arts training. As was the custom, the three older boys had risen hours before and had already been hard at practice by the time Jun and Jinpei joined them. Once it had been settled that Jun and Jinpei could stay in Nambu's home more or less permanently, the doctor had made it very clear there were certain things that Jun and Jinpei shouldn't know and others they shouldn't be involved in.
Jun followed her brother into the matted room and returned the welcoming nod sent to them by their sensei. Ken smiled his usual morning greeting and Ryu waved. Joe sent them a reserved look, which they'd all come to understand that for him was his means of conveying a joyful welcome.
Though everyone and everything was as it had always been, Jun still felt her stomach tighten as she moved to take her place. There were secrets behind their smiles, their greetings. There was discomfort and pain hidden behind happy faces. And she and Jinpei were never meant to know of them... They were to be kept in the dark - kept on the outside.
All this time, Jun and Jinpei had seemed to have been accepted into the fold, made to feel as if they belonged. It all tasted bitter and false to her today. There was one thing the five of them didn't share, one thing wedged between them and permeated so much of their lives - Nambu's project.
Her spirit feeling heavy, Jun pushed her body into the routine, seeking solace from the familiar movements. As much as she was able, she watched the boys, looking for signs of their aches, of the damage that had been inflicted on them yesterday. They covered it well, she'd give them that, but she'd already had an idea as to what to look for. Ryu was putting more weight on his left foot than his right whenever possible. As Joe went through his katas with his normal rapid, snapping pace; his eyes would flinch whenever he was forced to move his right shoulder. Ken proved to be the hardest of the three. And though she could find nothing definite, even he seemed to be holding back a little from his usual intensity.
By the time they were dismissed, Jun was more than glad to get out of there. Their wounds pained her but at the same time she hadn't been able to look away. The bitter taste that had sprung to her mouth when she had entered was still with her when she left.
At lunch, Jun tried hard to seem more normal, determined that if they could work so hard to keep their pain from her she would do the same with her own. And there was another reason-for while none of the others seemed to have noticed anything was amiss, more than once Jun had found Pham looking at her in a pondering way. She'd learned sometime back that little escaped their teacher or his wife. She wasn't sure what he'd made out of her actions in class, but she wanted to give him as little as she could to think about.
When lunch was over, Jun found herself sighing softly as the boys and Pham left. The more normal she tried to behave the more on edge she felt.
After she and Jinpei cleared the table and Pho finished with the dishes, the three of them sat down for their afternoon studies.
Much of what Jun had learned of reading and writing before her time at Ximang had steadily come back to her as and she'd gained more and more ground everyday. Jinpei, like a sponge, had taken to the teachings well and didn't linger far behind her. Three months ago, Pho had started supplementing their lessons with other things like low level math and science. Jinpei had no interest in math whatsoever and only worked at it because Jun forced him to. Science though, as long as it had something to do with animals or bugs, he was more than eager to learn about.
Jun found both subjects fascinating. She enjoyed the science for its diverse mysteries and the things it revealed to her, while she enjoyed the math for its symmetry and structured design.
Jun found herself relaxing a little as today they practiced their reading skills aloud, reading from a small storybook on ancient fables. Jinpei's favorite so far, had been the story of the turtle and the hare. The second time they'd read it, he'd changed the hare to himself and the turtle to Ryu, though by the time they'd reached the end, he'd reverted back to the hare and turtle remembering he was the one who lost.
Reading-this was one delight the project would never encroach on. And the more she read, the more she'd learn to understand and in the end she would use it to give her the wisdom on what to do about other things...
"Very well done!" Pho's praise was filled with smiles.
Jinpei grinned from ear to ear, his extra efforts outside of class having paid off. He wouldn't be complaining about the extra studying Jun'd had them everyday for a day or two at least. Jun felt a small smile light on her face. She felt proud of her brother and of her own accomplishments as well.
"I'll have to tell Kozaburo. He will be so pleased. Then I can badger him into getting us a new set of books." Pho winked at them a mischievous look in her eyes.
Jinpei giggled. "Can we get some with animals? Please?"
"I'll see what I can do." Her smile told him she'd get that and more.
Jun helped pick up their things after class was over and took them up to their rooms. Now their time was their own.
"Jinpei, what did you want to do? Should we practice some more?"
Her brother met her gaze and then quickly looked away. Jun felt a sudden sense of dread go through her.
"Neechan... could we, could we go see again?" Jinpei looked over at her from the corner of his eye.
This time, it was Jun who looked away. "You know that what we did yesterday was wrong, Jinpei."
"No buts!" Jun found herself feeling suddenly angry. "We both know we're to have nothing to do with the project." All the tension she'd thought she'd dropped off came flooding back. "We would only be getting in the way."
Jinpei stared at the floor looking unhappy.
Jun felt her anger disappear. "Say, why don't we go outside for a while. It's cool today and maybe we can see some butterflies or locusts."
The effects of her suggestion were immediate. "You really think they'll be some?"
"There's only one way to find out."
"Okay! Let's go! Let's go!" Jinpei tore out of the room and down the hall.
Jun sighed quietly, disaster averted, and followed at a more discreet pace.
With the coming of fall, the weather in Utoland had turned cooler. It was much more to Jun's liking than the humid summer had been. And a surprise had come with the changing of the seasons. For though she'd been in love with all the luscious green of the plants on Nambu's estate, she adored them even more as they changed from that into vibrant reds, oranges, and browns.
Jinpei ran from tree to tree, madly cutting through the accumulating fallen leaves, looking for bugs. Jun stayed on the pebbled path and watched knowing he had more than enough energy for the two of them. A startled squirrel darted from the ground up the nearest tree until it was well out of reach. It didn't look happy. Jun knew exactly how it felt.
She watched the squirrel as it gave the noisy boy an annoyed look and then climbed higher into the tree. As she watched, it quickly ran down a long branch and then used it to leap onto another. She blinked as it disturbingly reminded her of the small car in the strange training room. Jun felt herself shudder. Even now, the three boys were there, chasing that car, being battered by the room's queer snaking arms and lumbering dummies. How many more bruises would they gain today?
Jun shook her head not wanting to think of those things. It was only training. They wanted to do this! It was why they were here. It was none of her concern!
Yet, the harder she tried not to think of it, the more insistent did her worry for them become.
Jun followed Jinpei again with her eyes, hoping his antics would distract her. They didn't. Whenever he leapt after a bug or thrashed around in the leaves, all she could do was think of them-of what might be happening to them.
Her brother looked up and around, startled by the unexpected call. "Yes, neechan?"
"Come on. We're going to go check on the others."
"Really?" Hope flared on his face.
Jun bit her lip. "Yes."
She followed the path the rest of the way around the house, leaving Jinpei to catch up to her. At the kitchen door, she peered carefully through the glass to see if anyone was there. Finding the place deserted, she opened the door and quickly went in.
With her worry pressing her on, Jun made her way to the secret door and opened it. Hurried steps carried her down to the basement levels below.
Jinpei struggled to keep pace with her longer gait as she rushed down to the second level. Jun didn't hesitate once she'd reached it, but made directly for the room. It was only when she came within five feet of the door that she slowed. Quietly, with her brother behind her hopping from foot to foot, Jun reached for the doorknob and gently turned it. Pulling it open only a couple of inches, they took a peek inside.
Like the time before, the control room was covered in darkness except for the light pouring through the window from the training room next door and from the small colored indicators on the large console.
Pham stood before the console, staring raptly at what was going on beyond.
Jun nearly jumped out of her skin when he spoke.
"Ah, so I was right. I thought you might have found us yesterday."
Jun froze having no doubt that he was speaking to them, even though his eyes had never left the console. She should have known better than to think she could get anything past him.
"Come on inside." He waved at them though his eyes still remained riveted before him. "You must stay in the back, however. They must not see you."
Jun hesitated, feeling guilty she'd been caught and even though Pham was offering them a better vantage point, she still knew they didn't belong there.
Grinning, Jinpei wiggled out from beneath Jun and opened the door further to step inside. Jun, after hesitating a moment longer moved to join him. The two of them kept to the very back of the room as they moved farther in.
Currently, the boys were busy dodging and incapacitating a large number of the moving dummies while trying to catch the small racecar with the handkerchief around the room.
Jun's heart wrenched at every near miss of injury. Her body coiled with tension as she watched and she only felt free to breathe again once they'd finally succeeded in snatching the handkerchief away.
Pham's small wrinkled hands moved deftly over the controls as soon as the scenario was over. After a few short minutes, he flicked another switch and warned the boys it was time for them to get ready to begin again.
As soon as the last exercise was over, Pham warned Jun and Jinpei before letting the boys know.
Jun and her brother quickly left the room. They didn't slow until they'd reached the next level.
Jun breathed out feeling thoroughly exhausted. In contrast, Jinpei was bouncing around mimicking the moves he'd seen the others using during the simulations. And though watching him made her more tired, still, Jun felt better than she had that morning. She knew first hand where and when each of them had been hurt today and that seemed better to her than not knowing at all. And unless Pham objected later, it looked like she might be able to keep an eye on them from now on.
Over the next three weeks, Jun did exactly that. She watched the boys intently during each session. She came to grow somewhat familiar with the controls, paying attention to how Pham set up each exercise. She even grew to where she could anticipate the forms of attacks they'd receive by the controls he chose.
The boys' number of injuries grew less, their timing and reactions improving. These improvements were even more visible in the training they all shared. And though up to this point, being able to watch them had slowly worn away her strange feelings of apprehension, something unexpected moved to take their place.
This morning, as Pham had them do every so often, he had them pair off to spar against one another. Unlike most other times, Pham did not have Jun and Jinpei fight one of the others but paired them against themselves. Jun thought nothing of this and gave her brother all she had until Pham had them stop. It wasn't until one of the others went that she realized what was happening.
After bowing, Ken and Joe went at one another like lightning. Punch, block, kick, block, each move following the other almost too blurred to see. Whenever one or the other actually connected, whoever fell was back up and going again as if it had all been part of the same move.
Jun could only stare. The boys' reactions were instinctive, confident, quick. That strange room had made all this difference? She felt numb as the realization slowly came to her why Pham had paired her with her brother. Harder to face was the fact she would never be allowed to spar with any of the others ever again.
When Ryu took his turn with Joe, the impact of their blows seemed to echo in the room. Each time they hit it was like a slap to Jun's face. They were getting better, so much better. She and Jinpei were being left behind.
During Pham's critiques, Jun barely heard anything he said. In her mind's eye, the boys' combats just kept replaying themselves over and over. Even with the injuries they'd suffered, they'd been so much better. Soon they would be totally out of her and Jinpei's league.
An ache crept up into her chest and just wouldn't go away. It remained with her through lunch and their studies afterwards. When she and Jinpei went down to watch the boys train that afternoon, it grew worse. Only later, as they went to dinner did she understand why it was there.
Months ago, when they'd first come to Nambu's home, Joe had become angry when they'd first been allowed to join in the morning sessions. He had taken her aside one day and given her the first real inkling about what the project was about, but he'd also predicted something-that their involvement would only slow them down. And though at the time, his words hadn't been true, it looked like in the end he'd been absolutely right. They were slowing them down.
Sooner or later Nambu or Pham would see that and pull them out of the training. Worse, they might be allowed to stay, but they would be forever apart, the boys' growing skills rising like a wall between them. She wanted them all to grow closer not be thrust farther apart!
Jun kept quiet at dinner. She ate mechanically, not really tasting what she ate but not wanting to arouse suspicion. Her face was a mask of interest to the conversations happening around her though she was finding it extremely hard to concentrate on them at all. What was she going to do? It was as if a giant pit had opened up before her and she knew she couldn't make the leap across. Everything was falling apart.
Jun didn't realize dinner was over until everyone started getting up to go. Quickly, she rose from her own seat and followed the others out because it was what she was expected to do.
"What are we doing today?" Jinpei glanced from one of the boys to the other, his face eager.
"We-ll, how about some more swimming lessons," Ryu suggested.
"Yes!" Jinpei jumped up and down his face filled with glee. "Swimming!"
"You're going to give the poor kid more lessons on how to drown, Ryu?" Joe leaned easily back against a wooden paneled wall, a teasing grin on his face.
Ryu didn't rise to the bait. "Shows what you know."
"Ryu's a good teacher!" Jinpei rose to his friend's defense. "I didn't swallow that much water the last time."
Ryu choked, his face turning red, even as Joe burst out laughing.
"What's so funny?" Jinpei stared at the two of them, his expression baffled.
"Don't worry about it, Jinpei," Ken said. "Just ignore Joe, that's what I do."
Joe seemed to find this hilarious as well.
Jun wanted to cry. After everything, after all they'd gone through, here were the signs that the five of them were coming closer together. This was proof of the progress they'd made.
The first time Joe had laughed out loud in their presence had made her feel warm and happy. That Joe could feel at ease with them had been wonderful. Now, it felt like salt being added to the wound. It was but one of the many things they stood to lose because of Nambu's project.
"Beat you guys upstairs!" Ryu took off towards the staircase.
"Oh no, you won't!" Jinpei took off after him.
Joe followed at a more sedate pace, still chuckling softly.
"Hey, Jun, are you okay?"
She looked up only to find Ken's concerned face staring into her own. Jun looked away, his expression making her ache all the more. "I'm, I'm okay. Just thinking hard."
She couldn't tell him. There was nothing he could do and he would figure it out eventually. Besides, it wasn't his fault; she couldn't burden him with this. She knew him well enough by now to know that though sometimes he tried to look like nothing could bother him, whenever there was a problem, he felt responsible and tried to fix it. And there was no way she could see that he could fix this. Jun bit her lip, trying quickly to come up with something to say. "It's a book. One in the study," she hesitated. "It's harder than the ones we're studying but it's really interesting. I just end up having to look up a lot of the words."
"Maybe I could help?" he offered.
Jun felt shame sweep through her at the lie. "It's okay. I've got to do this myself. Thanks anyway." She still couldn't bring herself to look directly at him.
"Are you coming swimming with us? Somebody needs to distract Joe so Ryu can actually get some lessons in."
Jun could hear the humor in his voice. "Maybe later? I really want to do some work on that book." She bit her lip again as he hesitated.
"Okay," he said. "See you later then?"
"Sure!" Jun tried to put as much positive emotion into the one word as she could. She watched as Ken hurried up the stairs after the others.
Jun made her way to the study keeping an ear out of the others' return down the stairs. She sat down after picking a book at random in case any of them decided to check in on her on the way.
Closing her eyes, Jun took a deep breath through her nose and then exhaled through her mouth trying to calm herself. At this point, if any of them did come in, she wasn't all that certain she wouldn't just snap.
Jun opened her eyes and pretended to look at the pages before her as she heard the others cavorting down the stairs. She prayed over and over none of them would come see her. They didn't. Yet their laughter as they went on their way, haunted her even after they'd gone.
Once five minutes had passed and the hallway remained quiet, Jun got up and replaced the book back on the shelf. Taking a peek into the hall to make sure no one was coming; she left the study and headed towards the front door.
The sun had already lowered out of sight beyond the horizon and the air had turned slightly chill. Jun closed her eyes and let it sweep over her, feeling comfortable in its embrace.
Small lights lit the covered parkway as well as the two walkways leading around the house. The trees and bushes stood about like deep undulating shadows as she followed the path on the right to the back.
Once she reached the back yard, Jun left the path and let the darkness swallow her whole. She followed what had become a familiar path to the far corner of the walled estate.
Though she couldn't see well. Jun bowed in the direction of her makeshift altar and prayed for a few minutes before sitting down against the trunk of a nearby tree. She'd never quite made up her mind if the spirits of Tebet lived here or if different spirits controlled the land, but had decided some time back not to take chances.
After a few months here, she'd come to learn the world held many more beliefs than just the ones she had known at the monastery. She'd yet been unable to find if Nambu believed in any of them, and was hesitant to ask. Pham and Pho believed in at least two, one having to do with their ancestors and another with a savior, and it didn't seem to trouble them that in some ways they were very different from each other.
Joe had made it quite plain that he believed in none of them and didn't really care if spirits or gods were real or not. This had worried her greatly.
Some of Ryu's beliefs had seemed to mirror some of her own. He too believed in spirits, spirits contained in the sea, in the trees, the rocks, and the mountains. He'd told her his village had had many shrines for the spirits. Though from other things he'd told her, his spirits didn't behave like hers. She'd asked him if he thought there were spirits here and what kind they might be, but he wasn't sure. It was also something he didn't like talking about in front of the others.
As for Ken's beliefs, Jun had been able to find out little. He seemed to know something about a lot of them, but he'd never directly admitted to believing in any.
Confused by the diversity, Jun had continued coming occasionally to her own shrine and bringing offerings just in case. Just being here, even with the uncertainty, made her feel more at ease.
Jun sat in the silence of the night, and let the serenity around her seep into her bones. The scent of pine and dried leaves tickled her nose as they played in the soft breeze. These were the scents of her new home and she found them comforting, like an old familiar but half forgotten memory.
She'd just started to think she would make it through when tears poured on their own out of her eyes. She tried to stop them, but once the flow had begun it wouldn't be denied. Jun closed her eyes, feeling the tears course warmly down her cheeks, speaking to her of the growing despair that had built inside her.
There had to be something she could do-there had to be something! She'd found something very precious to her and Jinpei here in Nambu's home and she didn't want to lose it. She knew her brother had yet to realize what was happening, but he'd have no choice but to see it soon. It would destroy him. He'd suffered so much. To have to lose not one but three of his family again! There had to be a way she could prevent that.
The easiest answer of course was to join Nambu's project. But that wasn't an option! Not only did everything she knew say that killing was wrong, but Nambu would never have them. Yet it was the project that was coming between them. It was this new training that was leaving them behind. If only she could...
Jun eyes snapped open, the thought completing itself in her mind. Yes, if somehow she and Jinpei could follow the same training, then they would improve too. A kernel of an idea blossomed inside her easing the ache within for the first time. The idea wasn't fool proof, it might not even work at all, but at least now she had a plan. She wiped away at her tears a shadow of a smile actually tugging at her lips. She shuffled over to the shrine and bowed down thanking the spirits for their guidance.
Feeling lighter than she had all day, Jun made her way back inside and then headed upstairs. It was time to join the others. She almost ran in her eagerness to be with them again.
Jun was instantly awake, the beeping from her dresser summoning her. Scurrying to her feet, her heart in her throat, she moved to turn it off, afraid someone else might hear. She'd learned from the others the clocks could be made to wake you up at specific times. A few months ago, she had toyed with hers until she'd figured out how to make it work. She'd set it every night since then to make sure she and Jinpei would never be late. Up to now, she'd beat it every morning without fail. She had used it for an entirely different purpose today.
The red glowing numbers flashed the time of one in the morning. She stared at it uncertainly, all her plans suddenly unsure now that the time was here. But she didn't really have any other choice.
Grabbing for them where she'd left them, Jun took her clothes and quickly got dressed in the dark. Her pulse racing, she moved to her door and opened it quietly before sneaking out of her room.
As she moved down the hall for the stairs, the house's silence pressed in around her. It was almost as if it were holding its breath, aware of what she was about to do.
Jun followed the familiar route to the kitchen, gingerly touching the wall with her fingertips so as not to get lost in the darkness. Visibility improved a little as she entered the kitchen as a bit of light poured into the room from the outside through the window in the kitchen door.
She toggled the switch for the secret door, suddenly wondering how she would manage to get where she needed to go in the absolute darkness she would encounter there. She mentally kicked herself for not having the foresight to borrow a flashlight or candle. It was too late for that now.
As the door opened, Jun was forced to shield her eyes as unexpected bright light gushed from the opening. She gasped, thinking she'd been caught, but found that no one was there. As her eyes adjusted, she looked down the stairwell and noticed not all the lights were on, just every other one. Was there someone down there or was this just the way things were always left? She had no way to know. Should she not go? Reminding herself why she was doing this to keep her courage, Jun forced herself to go in and closed the door behind her.
With all her senses primed, she carefully made her way to the second sub level and the boys' new training room. No lights were on inside the control room or the room adjoining it, so Jun left the outer door open until she could find the lights. She found two sets of switches by the door and flipped them both. Both rooms flooded with light.
Taking one last look into the hallway before doing so, Jun closed the door. Feeling a little nervous now that she was actually there, she approached the control panel. For three weeks she'd watched Pham manipulate the panel, thought that she'd become familiar with what did what. Now, as she stood there studying it, she was no longer sure.
Some of the buttons and switches were labeled, while many others were not. Yet all of her plan rested on this machine, on what she might be able to do with it. She had to make it work.
With gnawing uncertainty, Jun reached for the green switch on the console's upper left-hand corner. In all this time, Jun had never actually seen Pham activate the machine; she'd only seen him turn it off. Sending off a quick prayer, she hoped this machine, like so many others, would turn on the same way it was turned off. She reached out and flipped it.
A soft hum filled the room even as the reels of the computer banks against the wall rolled forward, then backward, before resetting with a loud click. Jun twisted around at the unexpected noise.
When nothing else happened, she slowly turned back to the control panel. At the beginning of each set, Jun knew that Pham paid the most attention to the controls on the right. Casting her thoughts back to earlier that day, she followed what she remembered of his settings and then activated the machines.
Poles thrust out of the walls in the other room at incredible speeds. The small car with the kerchief was there but wasn't moving. Jun frowned. This was not the effect she'd been trying to duplicate. She pressed the large button marked stop and tried again.
For over an hour, Jun changed combinations and watched the effects. She puzzled through them, keeping an eye on what did and didn't change and filed the information away. The longer she spent doing it the more her confidence grew. The pieces were coming together in her mind.
When she was finished for the night, Jun turned off the console and left everything as she had found it. There was more work to be done before she was truly ready, but she felt she'd made progress and it made her feel good.
Jun sneaked out of the basement and back to her room, no one seeming the wiser. Just in case, Jun set her alarm as she did every night, so it would wake her in the morning if she overslept. She fell asleep quickly, her mind more at ease than it had been.
The next afternoon, Jun watched Pham's every movement at the controls, committing them to memory. She watched the boys as well, studying their moves and techniques more critically than ever. For her plan to work, she'd have to learn all she could from them without the benefit of actual instruction.
That night, Jun sneaked once more down to the second basement level and practiced on using the controls. Her mastery over them grew, but she still made no attempt to go into the other room.
For the next two days, Jun watched Pham and the boys and continued to practice at night with the controls. After studying them on Thursday, Jun made up her mind that she was ready to start.
A tangled bundle of nerves, Jun set the controls to make the poles jut out only from the east wall. She set them to come out two at a time, at a slow rate of speed. She set the pattern to run for twenty minutes.
After doing a quick set of warm-ups, Jun activated the program. For the first time, she set foot on the training room on the other side of the glass.
The padded floor beneath her bare feet felt warm. She edged up and down and felt the flooring give a little. She walked from one side to the other to get used to how it felt. After that, she turned to face the east wall and dropped into a ready stance.
One pole, about mid-height, protruded slowly from the wall to her right. A second pole started out a few seconds later, a couple of feet to the right of the first.
Taking her time, Jun flipped over the first and vaulted over the second. As more of the poles came and went, Jun went over and under them in as many varied ways as she could think of. She experimented too, trying to grasp some of the maneuvers she'd seen the others do.
When her twenty minutes were up, Jun took a short break and then set the program to run again, but this time with a few more poles. She pushed the speed up a little as well, as she reset the program a third time.
By the time she stopped for the night, Jun felt exhausted but at the same time strangely satisfied. Shutting everything down, she returned to her room and fell fast asleep.
The following night, Jun used the same program she had the night before but this time had two walls instead of just one jutting out poles. At each of the twenty minute sessions, she tweaked the program just enough to push herself a little harder.
On Saturday night, she again increased the number of poles. She got her first set of bruises for the trouble, but instead of bringing her down, it pushed her to try that much harder. If the boys could put up with that and improve, she could as well!
When she entered the kitchen on her way back that night, Jun stopped something in the back of her mind screaming that something wasn't quite right. As her eyes flickered about the room looking for the anomaly, she noticed one of the chairs was missing from the kitchen table.
Goosebumps traveled up her arms and back as she stared at the incongruity. Had the chair been there when she'd first come downstairs? Where had it gone? Hating the fact she had no answers, Jun forced herself to get moving. The heckles in the back of her neck rose, the dead certainty someone was awake and about moving through her.
The urge poured through her to run, to not waste time getting back to the safety of her room. Only by an act of pure will was she able to restrain the impulse. There was a chance whoever was about didn't know that she was there. And she could keep it that way if she just stayed calm.
As she left the kitchen, Jun stuck to the walls, her ears and eyes alert. She jumped at every shadow, cringed at every bit of noise, sure she'd been discovered. By the time she'd made it upstairs her breathing was heavy, her nerves on end.
Jun rushed down the final hallway to make it to her room, but stopped when she noticed her door was ajar. Her blood turned cold in her veins. And though she wanted nothing less, she moved cautiously to her door to see who might be there waiting for her.
When she first came in, she saw no one. She wondered if she could have been wrong and had left the door open herself earlier that night, when a muffled sob reached her ears. Jun felt simultaneously hot and cold as relief and worry flooded through her.
The blankets on her bed burst upwards as the bulge she'd originally mistaken for her pillow sat up with a start. "Neechan!" The small boy flew from the bed into her arms. "Neechan!" Jinpei rubbed his wet face against Jun's stomach, the tears soaking through to her skin.
"Jinpei, it's all right." She knelt before him trying to make her voice as soothing as possible. "I was only gone for a little while. I'm sorry I didn't tell you, but I'm back now." She moved the hair out of his eyes and wiped away the tears still on his face.
"I - I was so scared, neechan." He hugged her hard. "You were gone and I was worried. And then, and then they were gone too!" His small frame shook against her.
"Who's gone too, Jinpei?" Jun remembered the missing chair downstairs.
"Aniki is gone, and so is Ryu. Even Joe!" He stared at her earnestly.
The boys were gone?
"I didn't know what to do, neechan." His eyes filled with tears. "I tried to find Hakase's room but couldn't remember where it was and there were all those empty rooms... I was scared." The last was almost a whine.
"Shshsh, it's all right." Jun cradled him in her arms. "I'm back and everything will be all right now."
"But where were you?" He clung to her his eyes bright.
Jun hesitated answering not sure how much she should say. "Jinpei, you've noticed, haven't you, how the others have been getting better at practice than us?"
The boy nodded his eyes not meeting hers. "Yes."
Jun smiled a little despite herself, proud he'd noticed thought they'd never talked about it. It also seemed it had bothered him just as it had her. "Well, I think I've found a way for us to get better too."
Jinpei's face lit up. "Really?"
"Yes, really, and that's why I was gone," she said. "I had thought to try it out a while before telling you to make sure it'd work. I think it will, so now you know." She playfully tussled up his hair.
"But how, neechan? How are we going to do it?"
Jun held back a moment, subconsciously letting the excitement build. "I've figured out how to run the room."
Jinpei's eyes almost bugged out of his head. "The room?" The question came out as a high squeak.
Jun nodded, a grin growing on her face. "Yep."
"Neechan..." He stared at her with undisguised awe.
"We'll go practice there tomorrow night. We'll be taking it slow at first, so don't be frightened. We'll catch up to them in no time, you'll see."
Jinpei's face abruptly fell. "But, neechan, they've disappeared. What if they never come back?"
Jun had almost forgotten the fact he'd found that the boys were gone. "I'm sure they're all right, " she stated quickly. Jun hoped it was the truth.
"Can't we make sure?" His face pleaded with hers.
Jun hesitated. "I-I guess we can take a look in their rooms..." Her brother's worry was starting to rub off on her, but she wasn't sure what to do.
Jinpei stood up, taking Jun's hand tightly in his own.
Jun followed him out of the room and down the hall.
They checked Ryu's room first. For a moment, Jun thought he was inside until she realized the bed's pillows had been arranged to give the impression he was beneath the covers. The job wasn't good enough though to fool anyone who knew his size for long.
The fact he'd gone so out of his way to do it, however, eased Jun's growing worry considerably. Though why he'd want to sneak off somewhere in the middle of the night wasn't something she understood at all.
After pointing out to Jinpei that everything looked in order, they moved on to Ken and Joe's room. The effect of their pillows being used to mimic their missing forms was better than what Ryu had achieved. Just as in Ryu's room, everything else seemed normal and undisturbed. Wherever they'd gone, they'd gone there willingly.
"But where would they go, neechan?" Jinpei's question whispered over to her as they quietly made their way back to their rooms.
"I don't know, and I wouldn't ask them if I were you," she said.
"Could we wait up for them?"
"Please, neechan. I just really, really want to make sure they're okay. Please?" He waited breathlessly for her response, his eyes begging her to say yes.
"It's really late --," she began.
"But it's Sunday tomorrow. We can sleep late!" His eyes lit up. He knew he had her.
Jun sighed. "All right. But only for a little while, okay?"
"'Kay!" Jinpei rushed into his room and then came out a few moments later with his pillow and blanket. "Where do we wait?"
"Hm." Jun walked back towards the main hallway trying to find a good vantage-
point that would let them see the boys but would also give them the best chance of not being caught.
Finding a spot that looked right, she sat back against the wall and wrapped herself and Jinpei in his blanket as he cuddled up beside her.
In less than ten minutes, Jinpei had fallen asleep. Jun envied him a little, though she was sure he wouldn't be happy about having fallen asleep, for she felt way too tense and awake.
As she waited in the darkness, Jun wondered if the boys' disappearance might not be something else to do with the Project. Could it be possible the pillow trick hadn't been meant for the grown ups, but possibly just for them? If they were already out and fighting the enemy, maybe they didn't want the two of them to know. Jun found she didn't like the idea very much.
Her eyes jerked up at a sound coming from somewhere near the stairs. She spotted a set of darker shadows coming up towards the landing.
"Ryu, dammit! Watch where you're going will you?"
Jun froze at the sound of Joe's voice.
"Sorry. I just can't see anything."
"Shshshsh! Do you two want to get us caught?" Ken's voice was farther up the stairs than the others.
Jun scrunched down in the blanket, abruptly unsure as to the safety of her vantage point. She watched as their dark blobs reached the top of the stairs and headed to the right towards their rooms. She stayed still, wanting to do nothing to attract their attention. She sighed once they had gone glad they'd had no idea she was there.
Jun sat and waited a short while, just to make sure they wouldn't be back. Feeling eventually it might be safe to move, Jun gingerly picked up her brother and carried him to bed before seeking her own.
The next morning, Jun reminded Jinpei forcefully not to say anything to the others about not finding them last night or what she had told him they'd be doing. One slip from him and their hopes would be over before they'd begun. Jun decided to stick close to him in case he was tempted and it was a good thing she did.
She was forced to avert disaster twice that day. And though Jinpei's shins would only be sore for a little while, keeping track of him had thoroughly exhausted her. She hadn't yet recovered when the alarm woke her at one.
Jun went to get Jinpei out of bed, hoping he wouldn't fight her too hard. She'd barely touched his arm when his eyes flew open, awake and alert. "Is it time?" His voice quivered with excitement.
"Are you sure you want to do this, Jinpei?" Jun lightly bit her lip, suddenly reluctant but not entirely sure why.
"More than anything, neechan." His face was totally serious.
He was growing up. He was going for what he wanted. And just like her, keeping their small family together was all that was important to him. She would just have to make extra sure he took care.
Once they'd sneaked their way down to the simulation room, rather than proceed where she'd been at, Jun started them back at the beginning. Jinpei took to her format easily, his smaller size making it even easier to avoid the poles.
Each evening they made a little more progress and by Saturday of the following week, they were back to where Jun had previously been.
That night, on the way back, Jun noticed one of the chairs was gone from the table again. The hairs on her arms prickled at the thought the boys were out again. She wondered once more if these disappearances had anything to do with the Project or not. If they didn't, surely they would have said something to them of it? In her heart, it felt like yet another weight-another thing trying to tear them apart.
As the sessions got harder, the two of them started picking up minor bruises and scrapes. Jun was always careful and quickly treated any injuries. Sometimes they had to get inventive to hide the bruises from sight. Jun wanted to avoid having to lie if she didn't have to.
Every Saturday night, Jun noticed a chair was missing from the table. The fact that she didn't know where the boys were going or why picked at her in the back of her mind. She tried not to think of it as much as possible.
"Neechan, couldn't we just ask them?" Jinpei stopped, staring at the empty hole at the table.
"You know we can't."
"But I want to know," he replied. "It's not fair they go without us." He looked surly. "Couldn't we maybe follow them? Just once? That way we wouldn't have to ask."
Jun stared at him, the idea having occurred to her many times before. But did she have the right to even consider doing such a thing? Would the risk be too great? "I-I don't know, Jinpei."
"Please." He stretched the word as far as it would go. "Won't you at least think about it?"
Jun looked into his eager, hopeful face. She sighed. "All right, I'll think about it. But I'm not promising you anything, understand?"
He nodded quickly, the look in his eyes saying he knew she'd see things his way.
From then on, Jinpei asked for her answer at least six to seven times a day. Jun put him off, not able to make up her mind on what they should do.
"Neechan, have you decided yet?"
The two of them were walking down the hall on their way to the kitchen having retrieved their books for their afternoon studies.
The young boy quickly stepped back, Jun's irritation thick in her voice.
"If you ask me one more time..." Jun glared at him leaving him to figure out the rest of her implied threat.
"What are you having to decide, Jun?"
She turned around, surprised. Ken was standing at the doorway into the study. She'd forgotten he liked to go there during the boy's own study time. She didn't like the curious half frown he wore on his face. "Ah, you see-"Jun looked away, not sure what to say and positive she'd not be able to lie if she was looking at him.
"I saw a model I want but don't have enough allo-alla-allowance. Neechan said she might let me borrow some of hers."
Jun stared at her brother in shocked surprise. He'd just told a bold faced lie! For her! And the worst and most amazing thing about it was how easily he'd said it.
"Oh." Ken looked relieved.
Jun wondered suddenly what it was he thought they might have been talking about. Did he suspect something?
"If you don't have the money, Jun, I wouldn't mind lending him some of mine," he said.
"Um, no, that's all right. He has more than enough models already. He can wait."
"Aw, neechan." Even his disappointment sounded genuine.
"Sorry, Jinpei, what your big sister says goes." Ken gave him a commiserating pat on the shoulder. "Maybe next time." He waved at the two of them and returned to the study.
Feeling guilty, Jun continued on her way. Before they got to the kitchen, however, she pulled Jinpei aside and brought her face close to his.
"How did you do that, Jinpei?" she whispered.
"Do what, neechan?"
"You know what I mean."
"I do?" He stared at her with a puzzled expression.
Jun sighed lightly, not wanting to say it, but saw she'd have no other choice. "How were you able to lie to Ken like that?"
His young face looked back at her with deep seriousness. "I didn't lie. There is a model I want at the store."
Jun frowned. "But you never asked me for money to buy it."
"I didn't?" He actually looked surprised.
"Never mind." Her heart felt a little easier. Lying was not a habit she wanted him picking up, regardless of the cause.
Their close call though pushed her away from sleep that night, knowing she'd have to give Jinpei a decision before tomorrow night. She still wasn't able to come up with anything.
Jun felt tight and tense all the next day. Jinpei sent her questioning glances, but for once never actually asked for an answer.
Finally, when it was time to turn in, he could hold back no longer. "Neechan! I wanna know!"
Jinpei had come into her room, closing the door behind him. He came close to the bed, keeping his voice low. "Can we, please?"
"We could get in so much trouble. Waste all that we've done."
"Please! Just this once."
The pleading in his voice resonated inside her. He only wanted what she wanted. Would it really be so bad to try and find out where they went? She hesitated at the brink just a moment longer. "All right, we'll do it."
Jinpei let out a small, excited yelp and danced around the floor.
He froze, his eyes glancing over at her.
"But we have to make sure we think through how we are going to do this. What steps we need to take not to get caught," she said.
Her brother sighed with relief. "'Kay."
Cuddling together on her bed, they discussed what they knew and what they planned to do. After she thought there was no more they could figure out to safeguard against, Jun set her alarm and the two of them went to sleep.
When her alarm went off, Jun rose quickly, got dressed with the darkest clothes she owned and then went to wake her brother. He had gone to bed with his clothes on.
Creeping from their rooms, they went downstairs to the formal living room and unlatched one of the windows there. That done; they crept into the kitchen and on to the outside.
Jun felt goose pimples rise on her arms and legs as they quickly moved to hide in the nearest set of bushes. The cool night air and deep darkness reminded her of the night long ago when she had defied the monks of the monastery and had sought out Nambu in the guest quarters. It had been one of the events that had put them on the path that had brought them to where they were now. She hoped this night would not prove to be the undoing of all they'd gained.
The moon was three quarters full and illuminated the area enough for them to see. Jinpei quivered with excitement at Jun's side as they waited for the boys to make their appearance.
They'd been there about a half-hour when Jun saw the kitchen knob begin to turn. Ducking down behind the bushes and dragging her brother down with her, Jun waited, her ears poised to catch any sound.
Other than for a faint creaking from the door and light rustling sounds, Jun heard nothing as the boys made their way outside. As she heard nothing more, she risked a peek and saw Ryu and Joe waiting by the kitchen door with the chair while Ken silently dashed towards the barn.
In less that two minutes, Ken returned carrying a coil of rope over his shoulder. As soon as he rejoined the others, all three took the path leading towards the front of the house.
Jinpei propped up to go follow but Jun held him back. "We have to wait," she whispered.
"But we'll lose then, neechan."
After about a half minute, Jun let go of her brother and they moved from bush to bush, making their way in the direction the others had gone. As they neared the gate at the end of the drive, Jun froze, her gaze locking on Joe's thin form as he deftly climbed over the high wall. Signaling Jinpei, she hid behind the trunk of a nearby tree, marking the place she'd seen Joe go over in her mind.
As the two of them watched, they saw Ryu's form appear on top of the wall. Jun ducked out of sight as he lingered there a moment and looked around. Jun listened with all her senses, not sure he'd not spotted them, until she heard a dull thud as he went on to the other side. Glancing towards the wall again, she spotted Ken as he also went over the wall.
Knowing they wouldn't be seen now, Jun followed Jinpei to the high wall towards the spot they'd seen the boys go over.
As she expected, Jun found the missing kitchen chair propped against the wall, a rope tied at the top, which went on over the wall.
"Jinpei, climb up and take a look. But be very careful."
The words were barely out of her mouth before the small boy was zooming up the chair and pulling himself up to the lip of the wall to take a peek.
Jun waited anxiously as the seconds ticked by and Jinpei said nothing. After what seemed like an eternity, he brought himself back down a grin on his face.
"They're out of sight now, neechan. It's our turn!" Even as he spoke, Jinpei climbed back on the top of the back of the chair and pulled himself up on the wall until he could swing his leg over the top.
"Jinpei, wait!" Jun rushed up to follow, hoping he wasn't wrong and the others wouldn't see him.
By the time she made it to the top of the wall, Jinpei had already dropped off on the other side. He grinned from ear to ear looking up at her as she came down to join him.
"Which way?" Jun asked.
He pointed off to their right. "That way."
"Now remember what we agreed on. We must be very quiet and always stay out of sight. All right?"
"Yes, neechan." He rolled his eyes having heard this any number of times that night. "Can we go now?"
The two of them followed the high wall until it ended and then ran into Nambu's neighbor's yard. As much as possible they used whatever they could find as cover. Even going through the extra trouble, it didn't take them long before they'd caught up with the boys. The three of them seemed in no hurry as they sauntered down the sidewalk. Also, now that they were away from the estate, they were joking and laughing as they went along. Jun was becoming ever more certain this foray had nothing to do with the Project.
Occasionally as they moved from street to street, Jun and Jinpei were forced to wait until the others had moved out of sight before they could follow due to the lack of cover. Street lamps grew more frequent, making their progress more perilous, as there were less and less shadows to hide behind.
After a while, the boys left the sidewalk and walked across a parking lot into a Quickie Mart. Jun and Jinpei couldn't get close, for the parking lot was empty and lit.
"Neechan, what's in there?" Jinpei peered out past the car they stood behind, his feet shuffling back and forth, unable to stay still.
"Don't you remember? Nambu Hakase stopped here for gasoline for the car once."
"They want gasoline?" Jinpei made a face.
Jun laughed. "No silly, the inside is like a small store--candy, drinks, and other things."
His eyes grew wide. "You mean there's chocolate in there too?"
"Don't you dare start getting any ideas." Jun let her tone grow hard. "I only agreed to follow them to see where they went."
Her brother's face fell. "Aww, neechan."
Ken, Ryu, and Joe stayed inside the Quickie Mart for about fifteen to twenty minutes. Appearing to be in no hurry, they sat down at the curb facing the parking lot and talked as they drank and ate some of the things they'd bought.
Jun felt a tug on her shirt.
"Shshsh. You can get something when we get back." He was not going to talk her into going there.
The trip to the Quickie Mart explained many things. Many times before Jun had wondered how the others kept coming up with chocolate for Jinpei, especially since they never bought any while on their shopping time with Nambu. It also explained why they hardly ever seemed to spend their money on those trips-it was already gone. Jun wondered if they realized that sooner or later Nambu was bound to notice.
"Neechan, is this part of the Top Secret?"
"No, I don't think so."
"Then how come they haven't asked us to come with them, neechan?" He sounded a little hurt. "Don't they like us anymore?"
Jun glanced down at him quickly, hearing possible tears in his voice. "It's not that at all, Jinpei. They like us a lot, you know that."
"Is it, is it cause we're not Top Secret too?"
Jun sighed lightly. "No, I don't think it's that either." She thought about what to say next for a long moment and then went on. "I think it might have to do with the fact they're not really supposed to be out here. I think they haven't asked us because if they took us with them and got caught, then we might get in trouble too." She wasn't sure it was the true reason, but she rather believe that than something else.
"Oh." Jinpei stared back out at them, his eyes full of admiration.
"Come on, let's start back. It looks like they might be here a while yet, and it'd be better if we made it back first, that way we don't get locked out."
"Do we have to?"
Jun gave her brother a grave look. "Yes we do. Now come on!"
Once they were out of the boys' line of sight Jun picked up the pace and used the sidewalk to get them home faster. When they reached the wall of Nambu's estate, she tugged thoughtfully on the rope attached to the chair on the other side.
"Jinpei, let me give you a boost so you can climb the wall. Once you're up there, pull the chair up and over. Try not to hit the wall with it so it won't scrape against the bricks."
Obediently, Jinpei climbed up on the wall as Jun helped him up and then carefully brought up the chair over the wall and handed it down to Jun.
Jun used it to climb up and then pulled it up behind her. She settled it back over on the other side, trying to get it as close to where it came from as possible. As soon as they got down, she made sure it was put back exactly the way they'd found it. Going so far as to make sure the legs were back in the grooves that had been made in the dirt when they had all climbed it earlier.As quietly as they had come, Jun and Jinpei sneaked back into the house and to their beds. Jun fell asleep feeling easier than she had in days.
"So, where did you all want to go today?"
It was late morning on Sunday. Nambu, the boys, Jun and Jinpei sat about the kitchen table eating a leisurely breakfast of cereal, toast, and juice. The always anticipated and looked forward question had just fallen from Nambu's lips.
The usual barrage inundated the table until Nambu held up a restraining hand. "All right, all right. One at a time, please."
They quickly quieted down.
"Let's start with you today, Jun."
She didn't hesitate. "I'd like to go to the bookstore and the park."
Nambu smiled. "All right. How about you, Ryu?"
"The park, definitely the park. And could we have pizza for lunch?"
"Well there's a surprise." Joe rolled his eyes. He quickly moved his legs as Ryu tried to kick him under the table.
"Joe..." Nambu gave the boy a warning glance before returning to the matter at hand. "Where would you like to go, Jinpei?"
Jun's brother sat up straight, his young face serious. "I want to go to... to..." His brow furrowed for a moment and then cleared. "The Quickie Mart!"
Ken spluttered in his glass in mid drink. Ryu choked on a piece of toast. Joe glared at Jinpei as if he'd just confessed to murder. Jun found she couldn't breathe at all.
Nambu's brow rose at the strange chain reaction, but kept his attentions for the moment focused on Jinpei. "The Quickie Mart, Jinpei? Why would you want to go there?"
Jun saw her brother send her a quick panicked look as his paling face showed her he'd just realized his mistake. "Well..." He'd no longer look at anyone. "You got gasoline there before, but we didn't go inside. It looked like a fun place."
Jun quickly glanced at the others trying to see if they bought his explanation. She couldn't tell.
Nambu nodded. "All right. I guess it wouldn't hurt for us to stop there and let you have a look around." He then turned to face Ken who was now scrambling to clean up the mess he'd made. "Where did you want to go?"
He stopped in mid motion. "Ah, the, the park sounds good."
"That's my vote too. And maybe the hobby store." Joe's tone was even, his voice neutral. Jun had seen it before; she didn't like it. He suspected, she was sure of it.
Jun stuck close to her brother as they moved to pile into Nambu's car. She couldn't afford to allow the others to catch her brother alone, not even for a moment; not if they suspected anything.
Their first stop was the Quickie Mart. Jun glanced at the others out of the corner of her eye and found they didn't look too thrilled at being there. She couldn't help but notice they hung back until they were able to take a look at the person behind the counter. The tension seemed to just flow out of them as they spotted who was there.
Jinpei ran around the store once and then walked slowly down every aisle touching everything. He lingered at the candy aisle a longing expression on his face. He sheepishly came over to Nambu, who'd remained close to the front door.
"Hakase, could I buy some-candy?"
Jun groaned inwardly, knowing she should have expected him to do that and tried to cut him off. Except for the occasional treats of ice cream and the candy they got at the doctor's office for their checkups, Nambu didn't seem to hold much with sweets.
The slight frown on Nambu's face as he considered Jinpei's question said as much as well. "You and Jun can get two pieces each, but that's all."
Jinpei's face broke into a pleased smile. "Thanks, hakase!"
Nambu looked up over at the boys who were milling, subdued, close to the counter. "You boys can get the same if you like."
"Thank you, hakase." Ken's response sounded as excited as it should have been, had they not had their secret. Still it sounded a little forced to Jun. She wondered if Nambu had picked up on that as well.
Jun watched as Nambu turned to look out the glass door of the store and Ken tapped Joe and Ryu on the shoulder to follow him to the candy aisle. Both of them went along, Ryu not looking displeased, but a definite frown marred Joe's face.
After everyone had made their purchases, Nambu drove them to their other destinations. When all the shopping and browsing was done, Nambu gave in to Ryu's suggestion and stopped for pizza. Once they were all stuffed, they went on to their final destination--President's Park.
The boys retrieved their remote control toys from Nambu's trunk, Jinpei among them. After months of saving, and a little help from Jun, he'd finally been able to buy one of his own-a small tank that shot plastic missiles out on command.
As usual, Nambu took his briefcase and set himself up on a nearby picnic table.
Joe, Ryu, and Jinpei took off to their favorite areas, but Ken held back, his plane and controls held disinterestedly in his hands. Jun was just about to follow her brother when he spoke.
"Jun, could I talk to you?" His gaze didn't meet her own, his voice a lot quieter than normal.
Jun felt her stomach tighten. She had a sudden dread filled feeling on what this might be about. She hoped she was wrong. "S-sure."
"I, I know this is going to sound kinda funny but... Do you have any idea why Jinpei would think the Quickie Mart would be a fun place to go?" His clear blue eyed gaze met hers momentarily. "It just seemed a little weird to me."
Jun froze, not sure how to answer. She didn't want to lie, not to Ken, but if she told him they'd followed them there other questions would follow which would lead him to learning things she wasn't ready for him to know.
Jun opened her mouth, deciding perhaps she could get away with a half-truth when the decision was abruptly taken from her.
Just as she'd been about to speak, the ground suddenly trembled beneath her feet. Jun heard Ken gasp even as her own gaze slipped across the park and saw what looked like ripples on water move eerily through the grass and trees.
As fast as it had come, the rolling tremor was gone. Jun stood staring the way it had gone even as voices of alarm went up from others in the park.
"Neechan!" Jinpei's frantic call snapped Jun back.
Fear now flooding through her, she turned as he ran up to her and she checked him up and down to make sure he was all right.
"Are the spirits angry, neechan?" His eyes were wide with fear and awe.
Jun hesitated, the idea sending a cold chill down her spine. Could it be true? Was this a warning of some sort?
"No one's angry, Jinpei. It was a tremor, that's all."
Jun looked up, having forgotten Ken was with them. The rising fear in the back of her throat eased at the calm tone in his voice.
"They had these where I come from off and on. It's no big deal unless it's a big one." He frowned a little. "Though I don't think I've ever felt one here before." His face cleared. "I'm still sure it was nothing."
"Ken, Jun, are all of you all right?" Nambu had rushed up to them a worried look on his normally impassive face.
"Yes, Hakase, the three of us are fine," Ken replied.
"Hakase!" Ryu ran towards them, water dripping from his drenched clothes.
Joe joined them as well, coming from the opposite direction. "Is everybody okay?" His eyes seemed a little wild, but calmed even as he spoke. "What the hell was that?"
"It was a tremor," Nambu stated. "Possibly from a mild earthquake."
He looked like he was about to say more, when a loud beeping from his briefcase interrupted him. Nambu set the briefcase against the trunk of the car and quickly opened it. A large cellular phone sat clipped to one side of the interior. Nambu unhooked the phone and brought it to his ear. "Nambu here."
Jun and the others watched him silently as he listened to the call.
"I understand. Gather as much data as you can. I'll be there as soon as possible." With a frown on his face, Nambu put the phone back into the briefcase and closed it. His face cleared as his gaze moved to meet their more nervous ones. "I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to cut our time short today. I need to go into the office."
"Is something wrong, Hakase?" Ken asked what was on all their minds.
Nambu looked at Ken and then Jun noticed his gaze momentarily stray towards her and her brother in a sideways glance. "It's probably nothing."
Jun felt her heart speed up knowing now something was wrong. And though she had nothing concrete on which to base the feeling, she was also sure it somehow had something to do with the Project.
Nambu pulled the convertible's car door open. "Come on, all of you, into the car."
They all piled inside after him.
Jun stared at the people they passed on the road and on the streets on their way back to the house. Life mostly looked to be the same as normal, but here and there she saw one or two people who wondered around with confused or concerned looks on their faces.
When they arrive at the house, Pho and Pham were waiting for them in the driveway. They didn't appear worried or concerned, but did seem more rigid than normal.
"I may not make it back until late, Pho-san, so please don't hold dinner for me."
Jun and the others got out of the car.
"Being busy doesn't mean you shouldn't make sure to take a few minutes to eat, Kozaburo." Pho raised a white eyebrow at him. "I know you only too well. Promise me that you'll eat something even if it's from one of those awful vending machines, or the bunch of us will track you down and bring you dinner."
Nambu stared at the small older woman, startled. After a moment, he laughed. The tension Jun had noticed slowly building inside him on the way home poured out. "I wouldn't want you to have to go through the trouble, Pho-san. I'll try my best."
"You make sure you do." She gave him a small wink. "Take care."
Jun and Jinpei stood in the driveway with the others as Nambu backed away and pulled out of sight.
They didn't see Nambu for the rest of the day and he'd yet to return home by the time they'd turned in for the night. The only good thing about the incident was the fact it had seemingly made Ken forget all about his questions.
When Jun's alarm went off at one, she got dressed and before going to wake her brother, she sneaked down the hall to check to see if Nambu had returned. His room was deserted. As she came by the stairs, she noticed light coming from the floor above-from Nambu's office. She was half tempted to go up to look in on him, but held herself back. If he saw her, it would bring a number of questions she might not want to answer. With him awake, she also realized going off to practice that night could prove to be a major mistake. Jun went back to bed.
Monday afternoon, Nambu came home at his usual time to join them for dinner. It was almost as if nothing had happened the day before.
Jun had questions but dared not asked them. She hoped the boys would do it for her, but to her surprise, they asked none.
That night, Jun resumed her and her brother's nightly practice. On Friday, when they were through, Jinpei hesitated at her door before going off to bed.
"Neechan, could we follow aniki, Joe, and Ryu again tomorrow?"
Jun frowned, having hoped he wouldn't bring this up at all. "No, we absolutely can't. As it is, I think we should skip practice on Saturday night."
His face fell.
"I know at least Joe suspects that something happened last week, and if we're up and about, there's too much of a chance they might find out what we're up to." Jun had thought about this long and hard. Though no more questions had come from the previous week's slip by Jinpei, she knew Ken and Joe had a feeling something had happened. It was too much of a risk to take. What they were working towards was just too important.
Jinpei grumbled a bit.
"Jinpei, it's how it has to be."
"Yes, neechan." He pouted not meeting her gaze.
"And I'd better not catch you trying to go after them anyway. Understand?" Jun stared at him hard until he finally nodded his pout more prevalent than ever.
Jun came over and gave him a long hug. "I love you." She kissed his forehead, his pout a little less pronounced. "Good night."
Saturday night, Jinpei asked one last time if they could follow the boys and Jun flatly refused. Seeing she was not to be moved, he gave in and went to bed. She hoped he'd not ask again. Jun turned in leaving the alarm set only for the morning.
She found that she awoke not long after one anyway. Restlessly turning in the bed trying to get comfortable, Jun found she wasn't able to go back to sleep. Unhappy, she stared at the glowing numbers of her clock as the minutes ticked by. As it came close to one thirty, she imagined the boys getting up and sneaking downstairs. She felt a pang of longing to go with them, but clamped down on it right away. She wondered how long it might take before she'd be able to go back to sleep again.
"Joe, this is stupid!"
Ken's harsh whisper made Jun instantly stiffen. Her eyes locked on her slightly open bedroom door.
"I'm telling you that what happened last week is no coincidence." Joe's voice reeked of impatience. "It's been bugging the hell out of me. It should be bugging the hell out of you too. After all, you're the one that said you'd felt as if we were being watched."
Jun gasped softly. He'd felt them? The idea hadn't occurred to her. They'd been so stupid!
The door softly moved inward and Jun quickly shut her eyes. She tried to feel and look relaxed, so they'd believe she was asleep, even though she felt anything but. Her blood pounded in her ears as the seconds ticked by until she thought she'd never hear anything else again.
"They're both here. Satisfied?" Ken sounded nervous. Jun knew exactly how he felt.
"It doesn't mean anything you know. They're up to something, I can feel it."
Jun missed Ken's reply as they moved on down the hall. She sighed, this crisis now past. But her fears that Joe and Ken suspected something had just been confirmed. They'd have to be more careful than ever.
From then on, Jun daily stressed the importance of watching what he said to her brother. But she never made any mention of Ken and Joe's unexpected nighttime visit.
The workouts Jun and Jinpei put themselves through grew harder, more complex, and the two of them continued to improve. Jun could tell they were getting stronger, faster, their reactions growing more instinctive.
Their increase in ability was a too edged sword, however, for the more they improved, the harder it was to hide it. Jun began worrying during their morning lessons Pham might see that improvement. Though he still didn't have them sparing with the boys, she'd caught him staring at them thoughtfully on occasion. That he had noticed but hadn't said anything both thrilled and scared her at the same time. Sooner or later she knew he'd ask how they were doing it, and when the time came, she had no idea what she would do.
"Neechan, look at me!"
Jun glanced over her shoulder and saw Jinpei avoid a thrusting pole, swing up on another and then jump off a third to touch the ceiling before coming down to where he'd been but moments before.
"Show off!" Jun turned away and smiled, her heart filling with pride. It was also slightly tinged with jealousy. Jinpei made that sort of feat look so easy, as easy as the boys did, but it was one of the areas she had to work on the most. "My turn."
Jun dodged the poles coming out at her, gauging their sequence and timing before starting her own ascent towards the roof.
She swung from one pole and landed on another before the first retreated back into the wall. She jumped to a third and did a long armed loop before releasing it as the swing swept her skyward.
Jun hit the roof with her feet but didn't push off letting gravity take over. She grinned to herself surprised she'd done it so easily for once, even as she kept her eyes out for a pole to help her slow her descent.
Two poles jutted out simultaneously, one diagonal from the other. Jun grunted as the higher one nicked her hip even as she grabbed the other. Pain flared momentarily, but she had no time to acknowledge it. She checked her fall by swinging on the new pole as best she could and then swung onto another before dropping down to the floor. Another flare of pain shot up her leg as she landed and almost made her fall. Without pausing, she pushed out into a long cartwheel and took herself out of the padded room and into the safety of the control room. She dropped to the floor breathing hard.
"Neechan, you okay?" Jinpei dropped on the floor beside her. All signs of his previous playfulness were gone.
"Yeah, I'm okay. Just earned me another bruise is all." From the way her hip had ached, she was sure it was going to be a whopper. She hobbled back to her feet and glanced up at the clock. "We'd better stop for today. It's way past quitting time."
They did a couple of minutes of cooling down exercises and then Jun shut down all the machinery. On the way back to their room, Jun's hip occasionally twinged but she wasn't limping which was good. She was more than happy to be going to bed.
The alarm went off again at eight thirty. Jun sat up and stretched, the sunlight pouring through her window warming her face. It looked to be a beautiful day. Without further hesitation, she got out of bed. Intense pain flared through her leg and hip and she fell.
Gingerly, Jun got herself back on the bed. She pulled up her nightgown and looked at her hip. The signs of a coming bruise were barely visible, yet the site was overly sensitive to the touch. She hadn't worried before knowing her pants would hide the bruise, but how was she supposed to hide the fact she couldn't walk!
Jun went through some stretching exercises through gritted teeth to try and relax the muscles at her hip. She hobbled around the room when she was through so she could get dressed and then went to wake up Jinpei. He noticed her discomfort almost immediately.
"Neechan, is it bad?" he asked.
"No, not too bad. It's only in a bad place."
Her brother got dressed a small frown on his face. "Won't everybody notice?"
"Don't worry, I'll come up with something..." Jun only hoped she really could.
After getting dressed and finishing with their toiletries, the two of them went downstairs, Jun hobbling all the way.
Jun went still at the kitchen door as Pho turned to greet them.
"Good morning. You look to be running a little late today. I was just thinking about coming up to wake you." She gave them a teasing grin. "Guess you've saved yourselves from that. Come, sit down, breakfast is ready."
Jinpei headed straight for the table. Jun waited until Pho turned away to get their plates and then rushed to her own seat grimacing in pain.
Jun ate her breakfast, barely tasting it, her mind racing to come up with a good excuse once someone discovered her limp. Though she'd gotten momentarily past Pho, she knew she didn't have a prayer against her husband.
"Just leave the dishes today. They'll be expecting you for practice and we don't want you to be too late." She smiled. "Have fun."
"Thank you, Pho-san." Jun stood up slowly at the table waiting for the old woman to turn away again. As soon as she had, Jun made a dash for the next room.
Jun trailed behind as Jinpei rushed down the stairs to the next level. She caught up to him at the dressing room though her limp had become pronouncedly worse. There was no way she'd be able to hide this.
As she dressed, it occurred to her that perhaps she could say she was ill and skip practice that way Pham would never get a chance to see it. But doing that would bring Pho back into the picture again and perhaps even Nambu if not their doctor, Braun.
"You coming, neechan?" Jinpei had already changed and was eager to go.
It was amazing to her how sometimes he could so quickly forget things. "Go on ahead. Tell sensei I'll be right there." Jun pushed to move faster and get on her gi.
On the way back to the training room, Jun tried to force herself to walk normally despite the pain. Sweat beaded her brow when she reached the door and she gave up on the idea. Pham would never fall for it. And how long could she keep it up, even if it could? Sighing in defeat, she hobbled into the room.
The effect was immediate.
"Child, you are hurt!"
All eyes turned to her at Pham's shocked statement. Jun felt her face grow hot, not having imagined it would draw all of their attentions, and stared at the floor. "I - "
"Where is the pain?" Pham appeared at her side and knelt down beside her.
Jun saw the others coming over as well--a wave of panic rose inside her. She tried to quelch it before it could take hold. "I'm, I'm all right, sensei. It's only a bruise." The walls felt as if they were getting closer. She could feel the others' eyes on her. She had to fight not to try and bolt.
"I would see this for myself, please. Let us go back to the dressing room." Pham stood up taking her hand in his. "Ken, continue with the exercises while I am gone. We will return soon.
"Yes, sensei -" Ken sounded as if he would say more but didn't.
He and the others followed her and Pham to the door. Jun felt her face grow hot again as they stared at her as she could only hobble away. Pham supported her arm to ease the walk, all the way back to the dressing room.
"Come, we are alone now," Pham's voice was low and Jun found it strangely soothing. "Remove your pants and show me where it hurts."
Jun hesitated, her mind trying to come up with some excuse. Finding none, she did as she'd been bid. "It is here, sensei."
"Hmm," he said.
Jun bit her lip. She wasn't sure what his comment meant and it made her nervous. His cool, thin fingers ran lightly over the blooming bruise. Jun tried her best not to flinch.
"How did you manage this? I do not recall a fall in class yesterday."
Jun swallowed hard. Her throat was dry as she forced herself to give him an answer. "I-I woke up thirsty last night. On the way to the kitchen, I tripped on the stairs."
"Hmm." Pham never took his eyes from her injury.
Jun breath came up short as she realized he could also see some other healing areas on her legs. She'd forgotten of the other bruises she'd previously gotten there.
"And these?" His fingers traced some of her other bruises. "These are older, are they not? As if from many falls?"
Jun felt hot tears rise in her eyes. How would she explain these?
"They would not have anything to do with your increasing skills, would they?"
Jun held back a gasp realizing it would answer his question better than words. He had noticed! And she wouldn't be able to lie, he'd see through it. But how could she reveal the truth without giving away all of it. Even he wouldn't approve of the things they'd done. "We-we've been practicing on our own. In our rooms at night," she added quickly.
The lack of a coherent reply just made Jun that much more nervous. Did he suspect she hadn't given him the whole truth?
"Why would you do such a thing, Jun?" Pham sat down on the bench beside her.
Jun stared at the floor. "We were falling too far behind. Anyone could see that." She didn't dare look into his waiting face. "We just didn't want that."
"I see," he said. "Wait here." He stood up to leave.
Jun felt panic trying to crowd inside her again. Was he going to call Nambu now? Were all her efforts doomed? She shivered as she waited for Pham to return not knowing what to expect.
The need to run and escape had almost reached her breaking point when Pham finally returned. No one came back with him, he only held a small jar in his hands. "Here. This will help accelerate the healing." He handed her the jar. Her hands were shaking as she took it from him.
"Rub it generously over all places that have need."
"Th-thank you, sensei."
"You are to keep it. Make sure your brother uses it as well," he said. "But in return, I want a promise."
Jun looked up into the wizened face for the first time. "A promise?"
Pham nodded. "Yes, a promise."
Jun looked away afraid of what he might ask of her and having no idea what it could be.
"Practicing alone can be dangerous, especially in inappropriate surroundings. I want you to promise me that if you or your brother do more than bruise yourselves, you will come to me immediately." His eyes bore into her own. "Do you promise?"
Jun forced herself to answer. "Y-yes, sensei. I promise."
"Good." He nodded slowly his eyes as serene as ever. "I do not think Nambu need know of the other bruises. We will keep this between us as long as these extra practices do not go too far."
Jun looked away. She was sure what they were doing was probably more than beyond what he would feel as going too far. "Yes, sensei."
"Then it's settled." Pham's hand gently touched her shoulder. "Use what you need and then come join us." He left her on her own.
Jun stared at the floor relieved as he left. As soon as he was out of sight, she applied the salve to the places on her legs and more. She returned to class several minutes later. Though the salve did help with some of the pain and discomfort, Jun still took all they did at an agonizingly slow pace.
When the class was over, Ken and Ryu gathered about her with Joe not too far off. Jinpei hovered before her a worried, anxious frown on his face.
"Jun, we asked Jinpei, but he said he didn't know what had happened. How did you get hurt?" Ken's question was laced with concern.
Jun held her breath, her mind going momentarily blank. It had never occurred to that the others would have asked Jinpei what had happened while she was gone. If he hadn't pleaded ignorance... "I-I fell down the stairs. I'd gotten thirsty last night." Jun felt her face flush as she lied to them, their genuine concern making her feel ashamed. "It was dark and I was half asleep, I didn't watch where I was going. Silly, huh?"
"Ouch, bet that hurt." Ryu grimaced rubbing his own hip as if he could feel her pain as his own.
"We're glad you're okay though." Ken smiled at her.
Jun had to repeat her lie to Pho when they went upstairs for lunch and then later again when Nambu joined them for dinner. With each telling the lie seemed easier to say and that disturbed Jun more than the strange glances she occasionally noticed Joe throwing her way.
After three days, Jun was able to fully rejoin her normal routine. Pham's salve eased many of her and Jinpei's problems and that helped them progress even faster. Her worries about being left behind and losing the boys dropped back to almost nothing. Though she had no idea how long this impasse would last; she didn't allow herself to think about it or what it'd mean to them.
Jun stared raptly past the control room's window and watched the boys practice, as it had become her habit. Pham was pushing them hard today, throwing at them a mixture of robots and thrusting poles. Jun critically studied all they did, trying to pick up hints and tips she could incorporate into her and her brother's own practice sessions.
Ken had just used one of the poles to propel himself high into the air when the room shook violently about them. Pham's hand moved lightning fast to the emergency stop button. Nothing happened.
Jun saw Ken land on a pole only to lose his balance as the room shook again. Another pole lashed out from the wall in front of him and slammed into his midriff. Ken dropped like a sack of grain. Three robots, sensing his presence, turned to move in his direction.
With horrifying clarity, Jun realized Ryu and Joe, who had been confronted by their own set of robots, were too far away to come to Ken's aid before the three robots reached him.
Ken was in danger! Jun moved.
She barely heard the protests behind her as she pulled the door open to the training room and dashed inside.
Ken! Ken! She didn't think only reacted as the robots continued to bear on Ken's crumpled form. With barely a glance, she dodged a set of thrusting poles that tried to get in her way. Using one of the last poles, she swung up high and letting go, twirled in the air until she was able to maneuver herself to drop in front of the speeding robots. Adrenaline flowing like a rush through her veins, Jun smashed and kicked the buttons that would signal a hit and automatically deactivate them.
Joe and Ryu quickly dispatched their own assailants and grabbed the flag from the last ending the sequence. Jun ignored all that, turning around to look behind her as fear gnawed at her very being. "Ken, are you all right?"
The dark haired boy was sitting up his arm wrapped tightly about his midriff, eyes staring at her in wonder and surprise. He struggled to breathe without pain even as his eyes wouldn't leave her own. "J-Jun? How did-you do that?"
Jun batted the question aside, kneeling before him. There was only one thing on her mind. "It doesn't matter. Just tell me if you're all right!"
Ken blinked looking shocked at her intensity. "S-sure, I'm okay--mostly anyway. Thanks to you." He gave her a small, slightly embarrassed smile, his eyes still looking at her with admiration.
Jun sighed in relief, her fear abating, even as a keen weariness settled about her shoulders.
The two of them were suddenly surrounded by the others.
"Neechan, that was so cool!" Jinpei hugged her from behind his voice full of excitement.
"More like miraculous, if you ask me."
Jun flinched at Joe's low voiced comment. She kept her attentions on Ken, however, as Pham had him stretch out on the floor.
"Joe, Ryu, please go retrieve the emergency stretcher. You know where it is, yes?" Pham's eyes never left Ken even as his thin fingers gently probed his midriff.
"Yes, sensei, we know." Ryu rushed out the door. Joe followed almost immediately.
"Sensei, I'm all right. It just knocked--the wind out of me-" Ken had struggled up on his elbows before Pham gently shoved him back down. He still seemed to be having problems getting his breath without discomfort.
"I will find this out for myself, young Ken. There is no need to take unnecessary chances." Pham continued to probe Ken's injury and only once or twice did the boy's face contort with pain.
In less than a minute, Joe and Ryu had returned with the stretcher. They stood by as all of them waited for Pham's diagnosis.
"No broken or cracked ribs," their teacher said. "You were very lucky. However, the abdomen will be very unhappy." His gaze locked with Ken's. "You will be taken upstairs and put to bed-and you will not complain. I will bring awful tasting medicines for you to take, and you will drink them. Then tomorrow you will go see Dr. Braun who will confirm what I have said. After, you will rest until you're healed." He glanced at the rest of them. "I will make the report to Nambu. No mention will be made of Jun's timely intervention."
Ryu and Jinpei seemed puzzled on the last. Ken looked relieved while Joe's expression shifted between emotions finally settling on agreement.
Jun stared at their reactions realizing for the first time what it was she had done. A cold shiver cut through her, even as she felt grateful Pham was trying to protect her yet again.
Gingerly, Pham and the others lifted Ken from the floor and placed him in the stretcher. The five of them took hold of the ring around it and helped carry him upstairs. Ken didn't look thrilled at the attention but neither did he protest.
Pho appeared after Pham sent Jinpei off to find her. She quickly shooed all of them out of Ken's room including a disgruntled Joe, and closed the door so only she and her husband remained inside. She came back out after a few minutes later to find them all still waiting in the hall.
She frowned. "I know you're all concerned about Ken but he needs to rest now." Her eyes softened as she studied each of them in turn. "He'll be all right."
Jun watched her leave as she went to retrieve medicines for her husband. Feeling even more drained, though at the same time relieved; she slid down the wall until she was sitting on the floor. If she hadn't been there, if things had happened just a little differently, Ken might have died that day. Ken might have died. The thought sent chills running through her soul.
Jun looked up as Joe leaned up against the wall beside her.
"Not that I'm ungrateful or anything, but just how exactly were you able to manage that incredible rescue today?"
Jun closed her eyes. She didn't want to have to deal with this right now. Ken could have died. "I don't know. I just did it."
"That's great." Joe's sarcasm was thick. "But still, the question is, how were you able to do it?" His tone was cold.
Ken could have died.
"Joe, just leave her alone, okay?" Ryu came close as if he might try and come between them.
"I'm just asking a question."
Ken could have died.
"Neechan's just great, that's all." Jinpei came to stand on her other side and placed his small hand on her shoulder. "You're just jealous cause she was the hero and not you."
"Why you little-"
"Stop it!" Jun jerked abruptly to her feet. She turned on Joe. "Is that all you really care about? How it was done? Do you care nothing for the fact Ken could have been killed in there? Don't you care that he could have died?" Jun stared at Joe's startled expression even as tears welled in her eyes. Not waiting for an answer, she turned away from him and ran.
Jun ran and ran, rushing down the stairs until her sides ached, before speeding to the front door and on to the outside. Half-blind, she rushed through the sea of green that was the yard until she reached her hidden corner of it and her makeshift temple. She collapsed before it, weeping.Ken could have died. If she hadn't been there he could have died. Jun curled up into a ball, held herself tight and cried. died.
The sun was lowering in the horizon when Jun finally made her way back inside. Silently she went upstairs to her room still feeling drained but a little more under control.
Jinpei saw her in the hallway through his open door and rushed out to greet her. "Neechan!"
Jun made herself smile. "Sorry I was gone so long."
Her brother shook his head dismissing the apology. "Are you okay, neechan?" Jinpei's face was deadly earnest. "If Joe-aniki is mean to you again, I can beat him up if you want." Jun had the sudden desire to start crying again. Instead, she folded her brother in her arms and gave him a hard hug. "I love you!"
He hugged her back. "I love you too, neechan." His voice was muffled against her but he sounded as if he might cry as well.
Jun knew if he started, she'd join him too and then might never stop. "Isn't it time for dinner yet? We'd probably better get downstairs before Pho worries, right?" She gently pulled him away. "You know everything is all right, don't you?"
"Really?" He looked doubtful.
Jun took his hand in hers and they went downstairs together. When they got to the kitchen, she saw the only ones there were Ryu, Joe, and Pho.
"There you two are. I was starting to worry. Your dinners are getting cold." Two heaping plates already sat at their places. Pho pulled out their chairs so they could sit down.
Ryu gave them a welcoming smile as he continued with his own dinner, but Joe just kept his eyes on his own plate. Jun sat down with her brother and picked up her fork though she wasn't truly hungry.
As she ate, Jun's eyes drifted to Ken's empty chair. A wave of utter despair washed over her. Someday he might never fill that chair again.
Pho must have seen something on her face because she put her pot down on the table and set her hand on Jun's small shoulder. "He's all right. He's at Braun's right now. Pham is with him. Kozaburo couldn't come home so he sent a car for them. They should be back soon."
Jun nodded grateful for the information and tried to eat some more.
"Will hakase be back tonight?"
For the first time, Jun noticed Ryu was looking a little pale.
"Probably not until very late. This latest tremor has given him much to do."
Ryu swallowed hard. "It's like before..." He seemed to get a little paler still.
Jun wondered at what he meant but Ryu said no more. Instead, he started shoveling the food in his mouth almost as if he were in combat with it.
No one said much during the rest of the meal.
As soon as Pho would let him go, Joe got up from the table and left. Jun kept her eyes glued to her lap as he walked past. Still, she could have sworn, though she didn't see it, that his hard gaze had raked over her on the way past.
When Ryu got up to leave, Jun did the same.
Jinpei spoke up. "Hey, Ryu, want to play some video games?"
"Not tonight, okay?" His voice was low.
"Sure." Jinpei sounded disappointed but not surprised. "Neechan, will you?"
"Okay." She looked after Ryu as he despondently walked away and up the stairs.
Jun played games with Jinpei until she heard voices in the hallway. Having been waiting for just such a sign, she dropped her controller and ran for the door.
Ken was moving slow as Pham walked beside him towards the stairs. Pho hovered before them asking questions.
"You're back!" Ryu appeared at the top of the stairs and rushed down. Joe appeared out of nowhere to follow at a more sedate pace.
Jinpei zoomed past Jun as she hung back at the door. "Aniki! Are you okay? Did they operate?" He looked Ken critically up and down.
Pho laughed. "No, Jinpei, no operations."
Her husband smiled as well. "And he is, as you say, okay. He will just have to watch rather than participate for a few days."
"What some people will do to get out of having to practice."
Ken gave Joe a dirty look. "I could trip you and let you get a taste of this."
"Yeah? You and what army, cripple boy?" Joe gave him a nasty smile.
"Enough of that you two. Ken needs to rest." Pho waved Joe and the others back as if they were pesky flies. "He's going to bed now and so should the rest of you. Now go."
Groans met her commands but they still moved to do as she'd bid them.
Jun watched as Ken started up the stairs and noticed how heavily he leaned against the rail on his way up. She followed far behind them to turn in as well.
The next morning, Ken was at morning practice but didn't participate. Though Jun could never be quite sure, she had the feeling he was watching her intently as they went through their katas. She felt both thrilled and afraid at the attention.
That afternoon, Jun spotted Pham and a couple of strange men carrying tools head downstairs to the secret levels as the rest of them finished lunch. Jun had avoided going to practice the night before and had found out that morning that until repairs were made, no one would be using the room.
They actually saw Nambu briefly at dinner, though he ate quickly and retired to his office on the third floor as soon as he was done.
"Neechan, do you think we'll be able to practice tonight?" Jinpei glanced over at her on their way to breakfast.
"I'm not sure. As soon as the others start up again then we can too."
They walked into the kitchen.
"Good morning, children." Pho gave them a bright gap filled smile.
"Good morning!" Jinpei bounced into his seat ready to eat.
Jun followed suit though not quite as rambunctiously.
"Children, I have a message for you from my husband," Pho softly informed them.
Jun froze in mid-bite.
"Kozaburo is here and will be monitoring the simulation room to make sure it's working properly. Though I know you enjoy watching, Pham thought it best if you skipped today."
Jun nodded slowly, sending a warning glance to her brother as he started to make a face. "We understand."
"It will also prove a problem tomorrow and for a few days while Ken heals."
Jun sighed, having already half expected this. "Yes, Pho-san."
So that afternoon, after their studies were complete, Jun and Jinpei went off to the TV room rather than descending downstairs to watch the others practice.
As the minutes ticked by, Jun found herself feeling more and more uncomfortable. What if the machines hadn't been fixed right? What if there was another earthquake? Who would be hurt this time? Would one of them be killed? Maybe more than one? Jun stared at the TV unseeing.
If something did happen, they wouldn't be there to try and help. If one of them died, she wouldn't even know!
Jun bolted out of her chair every muscle in her body screaming for her to rush downstairs and make sure the boys were all right.
Her gaze drifted to her brother, not sure if she could explain what she felt if he asked. "I'm, I'm just going to go stretch my legs. I'll be back in a minute."
Once out of the room, Jun hugged herself as she paced back and forth in the hallway. She couldn't go down there, it was out of the question. And she shouldn't be worried-Pham would take good care of the boys. He'd never let them be hurt. She'd seen them exercise hundreds of times. They got bruised and battered but never seriously injured. They all knew what they were doing. So why wouldn't the feeling go away that she'd left them alone to die?
A sudden realization made her skin go cold.
If she felt this bad when they were only at practice, what was it going to be like later? What would it be like when they actually went out into the real world to fight their enemies? Her stomach cramped. Jun started walking faster. What should she do?
Eventually, she couldn't stand it anymore and made her way to the kitchen to look at the time. She was sure she'd been walking for days, but found only an hour had gone by. Agonized, she stared at the small hallway leading to the secret door downstairs.
"Jun, did you need something?"
She looked guiltily to the floor. "No, Pho-san, I, I just came in to see what time it was." She wouldn't look at the small woman directly as the latter came into the kitchen.
"Well, I was just about to start on dinner. Did you want to help me?"
Jun could feel Pho's gaze on her. She wondered at what she saw. "Su-sure."
"Why don't you set the table for me then," Pho suggested.
Jun made herself move and retrieved the plate-mats from the kitchen pantry. Slowly she retrieved the plates, glasses, and silverware she'd need as well. She set them out one by one, her gaze often straying to the small hallway in the back.
Pho hummed to herself as she expertly chopped carrots and potatoes.
Jun stared down at her hands. "Is, is waiting always so hard?"
The old woman stopped what she was doing and glanced at her over her shoulder, her expression puzzled. "Waiting, Jun?" Her features suddenly cleared. "Oh, yes, yes. Sometimes it can be."
Jun swallowed hard having hoped for a different answer.
"It's very hard sometimes for those who have to wait," Pho said. "The wives of soldiers, firemen, policemen-they have to deal with the waiting."
Jun turned away staring at the floor tears burning in her eyes. So it would always be like this, even worse than this once the three of them went out into the world to fight. "But, Pho-san, how do they, how do they stand it?"
"Some don't." The old woman's reply was soft. "Some find the waiting too painful and so break away from their men just so they don't have to suffer anymore."
"Oh." Jun felt her chest tighten making it hard for her to breathe. She didn't know if she could be strong enough to suffer this. Would she too eventually give up on them rather than go through the pain another day? "Is, is there nothing that will help? Nothing at all?" Jun's voice was small.
Pho came up close and softly caressed Jun's lengthening hair. "Some of the women say they wouldn't have the pain if they could be with them. They'd always know first hand their men were all right and they'd have no anguish to go through then. But that's not normally possible, is it?"
Wasn't it? Wasn't it possible? Pho's last words reverberated through Jun's mind even as the old woman returned to her work.
The worry would be gone or at least would be manageable if she could watch over them. It would ease her mind. She'd know if they were safe or if in danger, and if the latter, she could try and do what she could to help them.
But, even as the idea appealed to her, Jun knew it wasn't an option. She didn't belong to Nambu's secret Project. And though being part of the Project meant being in danger; worse, it meant having to kill. Joe had made it very clear that was what the Project was about-teaching them to kill the enemy who would invariably try to kill them. Jun knew though they'd be doing it to save the world, killing was still wrong.
Jun looked up from what she was doing as her brother skidded into the kitchen.
"You never came back!"
"Oh, sorry, Jinpei," she said, feeling a pang of guilt.
"Ah, little one, you're just in time. Want to help me?" Pho dried her hands on her apron.
"Sure!" Jinpei joined Pho at the stove.
Once she was done with the table, Jun sat down in her seat and stared at the small hallway while her brother helped Pho. Jun tried not to think, not to feel, even as she willed the time to hurry by. It seemed to take forever.
"But couldn't it be related, hakase?"
Jun felt herself gasp at the sound of Ryu's voice. They were back!
"There's still insufficient evidence to support that."
Eagerly, Jun watched them as they came into the kitchen. Ryu and Nambu came first, followed by Joe and Pham. Ken came last, moving a bit slower than the others.
"Still..." Ryu looked pale and his brow wrinkled in worry much as he had looked the previous night.
Jun wondered what it was they were talking about when Nambu's gaze met her own.
"Ryu, it'd be best if we spoke about this later."
Ryu followed Nambu's gaze and then looked away. "Yes, sir."
Jun felt her mouth tighten, a tendril of anger flashing past. She knew why this had happened--as always it was the fact they didn't belong. How she hated their secrets! How she hated these constant reminders that she and Jinpei weren't a true part of their lives. Jun looked away as they came to sit down, her hands bunching into fists on her lap. Still, her anger didn't last long, she was too relieved the boys had come back to her safe and sound.
Her relief at having them back abated somewhat though as dinner went on and she noticed Ryu's worried frown wasn't going away. Nambu looked worn as she glanced at him and once again he rushed through dinner to disappear up into his office.
After dinner was over, Jun thought of trying to talk to Ryu, but no opportunities presented themselves for her to get him alone. She'd remembered how on the day of the accident he'd said something about the earthquake and how he'd looked then very much like he did now. And somehow, though she knew not how, she knew that in someway it all tied back to the Project.
Several times she was sorely tempted to bring the subject up as they all watched TV. Jun held her tongue though, fearing other questions her own might bring up-she'd not missed the fact Joe's suspicious looks had yet to disappear. She was also afraid to spoil the time they were spending together.
Once they'd bid each other good night for the evening, Jun was in the middle of undressing when she realized right then Ryu would be alone. Quickly, before she had too much time to think about it, she put her clothes back on and sneaked out of her room.
Jun kept her senses alert as she tiptoed down the halls, wanting to make sure she wasn't seen. Taking a roundabout route to Ryu's quarters, she took a peek around the last corner hoping the door to Ken and Joe's room would be closed. It was.
Not wanting to press her luck in case they decided to open it, Jun hurried down to Ryu's door and knocked on it quietly.
Hearing the partially muffled response, Jun opened the door and rushed in before closing it quietly behind her. Ryu's back was to her as he pulled down the covers to his bed. He'd changed out of his jeans and turtleneck into a large, raggedy t-shirt and a stripped pair of boxer shorts.
"What did you guys-" Ryu's voice staggered to a halt as he turned around and spotted Jun standing there. Abruptly his face turned crimson, and faster than she would have believed possible, he hopped into bed and covered himself up to his chin. "J-J-Jun! What, what are you doing here?" His voice was a high pitched squeal.
Jun looked at the floor, hesitant to start now that she was there. "I need to talk to you."
"You do?" His voice rose another octave.
"I-yes. It's very important. Please?"
Ryu kept his covers pulled to his chin like a shield and stared frantically about him as if looking for a means of escape. "I-I don't know. What if somebody finds you in here?"
Jun frowned, not entirely understanding his hesitation. Did he somehow already suspect what she wanted to talk to him about? "Ryu, please." She took a step towards him. "I need, I need to know about these earthquakes. I want to know what you meant when you said this had happened before."
Ryu's eyes stopped roaming the room and turned to look at her. "Oh? That's all?" He slumped back in relief.
Jun didn't understand what was going on.
"I really don't know if I can talk about it." He no longer looked directly at her as if afraid his words would offend her.
Jun stepped closer. "It really would mean a lot to me. It's real important. Please?" He had to tell her what she wanted to know; he just had to.
"O-okay. I guess." He still wouldn't meet her gaze. "But... you can't let anybody know I told you."
Jun nodded quickly.
Ryu then hesitated so long before speaking again Jun became unsure as to whether he would really tell her anything.
"You see, they don't have earthquakes around here. Back home, we'd get a tremor here and there, but they just don't get them here." His gaze rose towards her for a moment and then swept back away. "Since they never get them, but now, suddenly, they do, I figure someone or something is causing them to happen."
Jun frowned. Someone was causing the earth to tremble? No wonder Nambu had become so busy. "And you think you know who it is?"
Ryu stared at his lap. "I suspect somebody, but hakase's found no proof yet."
"You think it's the people the Project was made to fight against, don't you."
Ryu looked up in surprise and this time didn't look away. "Y-yes, I do." He sighed deeply. "You see, back home, strange things that had never happened before started happening there too. The fish went missing. Strange whirlpools showed up where there had never been any before. And it was them." His voice grew angry. "Galactor had invaded our waters and scared away the fish with underwater construction and pollution. They caused tremors and underwater whirlpools to destroy ships and scare people away. Hakase and I almost died because of them. The people who'd been with us on my Dad's boat got taken hostage though at the time we thought they'd died."
Jun stood very still, absorbing every word.
"We couldn't find the bodies-at first. Months later though, one drifted to shore and a week later another." Ryu's protective blanket fell forgotten his gaze far away. "I went back with Hakase and saw them. Even I could tell they hadn't died by drowning." His voice grew quiet.
Jun was forced to come closer so she could hear.
"They'd, they'd been beaten, cut, burned-tortured- at my home, at the place I'd lived in all my life." His hands bunched into fists even as his voice shook. "If Galactor would do that to people as important as scientists, then what wouldn't they do to simple fishermen-to my family? To the world?"
Jun bit her lip, seeing the strong emotions running through Ryu's face.
"I-I was able to help my family and my neighbors. I got lucky, but those bastards will think twice before coming back again..." The fear in his eyes belied the confidence of his words. "They have to be stopped."
Jun let the silence build between them not knowing what to say. Impulsively, she moved forward and hugged him as hard as she could. "Thank you for telling me all this." She let him go as tears glittered in his eyes.
As quietly as she'd come, Jun returned to her room.
Sleep didn't come easily to her that night, and when it did, she didn't rest well. Dreams pursued her, dreams of earthquakes, whirlpools, and death. She woke to the sound of her alarm in the morning, feeling exhausted as if she'd practiced all night.
Jun got up, though her body wanted nothing more than to just lay there. For once, Jinpei woke up easily. She left him in his bed, rubbing at his eyes, as she went and distractedly pulled out some clothes for him.
"Neechan! It's morning!" He stared at her from the bed as if the light coming through his window were a personal affront. "You didn't get me up for practice!"
"I didn't get you up because I didn't get up." Jun got him out of bed and prodded him towards the bathroom.
"But when are we going to practice again? The room's fixed now, right?" Jinpei stared at her in their reflections on the mirror as if he suspected she might be plotting something against him.
Jun shook her head feeling heavy. "I just didn't think it was right. We'll go tonight, all right?"
He gave her a quizzical look. "Okay, I guess." He looked like he might say more, but didn't.
At breakfast, Jun ate but barely paid any attention to what she put in her mouth. Her dreams and Ryu's words of the night before meshed and clashed back and forth in her mind. She needed to know more. There had to be a way to know more.
"Jun dear, are you all right?" Pho momentarily rested her hand against Jun's forehead.
"Huh? Yes! I just didn't sleep very well."
"You do look a bit tired." The old woman frowned in concern. "Maybe you should skip practice today? I could talk to my husband."
Jun's heart skipped a beat. "No!" She had to go. She had to make sure the boys were all right. What if something happened? "I-I really want to go."
Pho stared at her in surprise. "If that's what you want. But just don't push too hard, all right?"
"I won't." Jun tried hard to smile.
As soon as they were finished, Jun hurried downstairs. The longer she'd been awake the greater her need grew to see the others. She had to see them, she had to reassure herself they were alive. Though she knew Pho would have said something if anything had been wrong at all, Jun's heart just wouldn't be satisfied until she saw it for herself.
As she rushed from the changing room Jinpei was hard pressed to keep up with her. "Neechan, wait for me!"
Jun breathed a sigh of relief, an unseen weight lifting from her shoulders as she entered the training room and saw them there-Ken, Joe, and Ryu. They were in the midst of some complicated katas, even Ken, though he was moving at a much slower pace than the others. They were fine, alive, unharmed-but for how long? Jun pushed the unwanted thought aside and moved to take her usual place.
Ken waved at them as they came in as he usually did. Ryu met Jun's gaze and then shyly looked away. Joe glanced at them, his face unreadable. Jun sighed not wanting to think about that remaining problem either.
With her main worry eased, Jun felt her spirits lighten perceptively. Being together with them, it was what she wanted, what she needed. She feared for them terribly. And she would lose them, one way or another she would lose them-either to the Project or Galactor or both.
When class was dismissed, Pham signaled for her to come over.
"You seemed distracted today," he said. "Is everything all right?"
"I-" she grabbed on to the first thing she could find, "I didn't sleep well last night. I promise to do better tomorrow."
"Do not distress yourself. That is fine." His ancient gaze locked with her own. "Young Ken will not be able to participate in the afternoon exercises for five days or so, but he will be there to observe. It is regrettable, but it might be best if you do not come until he has joined the others again."
Jun looked away dread flooding through her. Though Pho had already warned them of this the day before, she'd forgotten it. "I understand."
Pham placed his hand on her shoulder. "Do not despair. It will only be for a short while."
"Yes, sensei." Jun tried to look cheery, though she felt nothing like it.
When she left, she found her brother waiting for her in the hallway. "What did sensei want, neechan?"
Jun took a deep breath and pushed the words out. "He wanted to remind me we won't be able to watch afternoon practice for a few days. Ken will be watching since he can't participate and we can't let him know we watch them."
"It's not fair, neechan," Jinpei asserted. "Why can't they know we watch?" He frowned. "I wish we could practice with them. You already proved to all of them we can do it. Can't we ask?"
Jun sighed, a deep pain rustling through her. "We're not part of the Project, Jinpei."
"We should be! We're good enough. I know we are!" He stopped before her, a confident look in his eye. "We should be a part of it."
"It's not that simple."
Jun bit her lip. What could she say? "I, I know some things about the Project, things that say it wouldn't be right for us."
"Like what, neechan?"
Jun stared at his questioning face, still aching inside, wondering what she should tell him. Would the things she knew taint his view of the others? Would he think less of them for the things they might have to do? "Maybe we should talk about this later."
"No. I want to know!" Jinpei stomped his foot his jaw set. Jun had never seen him so determined.
"All, all right, but not here. Let's go find somewhere we can talk, okay?" He was growing up so fast.
The two of them tried a couple of doors farther down the hallway and went inside a small matted room. Jun closed the door behind them.
Jinpei stood expectantly before her even as Jun hesitated to begin.
Jun sat down cross-legged on the floor and waited until he'd done the same. "Jinpei, do you remember the bad Chunese back at the monastery?"
Her brother nodded slowly.
"It seems there are people out there that are even worse than them."
"Worse?" His eyes grew big.
"Yes, much worse. And Nambu Hakase is working on a project with the boys so they can get ready to go out and stop them."
Jun held up her hand before he could go on. "Jinpei, stopping bad people in real life isn't like the stories I've read to you. People get hurt. The bad people try to kill the good people and sometimes the good people have no choice but to do the same." She sighed. This wasn't coming easily. "To save the world from these bad people, Ken, Joe, and Ryu might have to kill them."
Jun was startled by her brother's unperturbed acceptance. "Well, it's, it's because these bad people might hurt or kill others as well as us, and the fact we might have to kill them--that's what keeps us from being part of the Project."
Jinpei's brow furrowed as he mulled over her words. "But neechan, can't aniki and the others get hurt too?"
"Then we should be in the Project," he said. "We can help protect them, like you did with Ken, and they can protect us."
Jun looked away amazed he'd jumped to that reasoning so quickly. "Still, there's the other thing to consider-the fact that we might have to kill people. Killing is wrong." Jun bit her lip as waited to see what he'd say next. She watched as his brow furrowed even deeper and then cleared.
"If the bad people kill good people they should die." He was very serious.
"Bad people killed your aunt, neechan. They may have killed my parents too, and they did Joe's. Being an orphan is bad. Killing is bad too, but not if it's bad people who would make more orphans."
Jun stared at her brother too stunned to know what to say. He made it sound so simple. It couldn't really be that easy could it?
"Can we join the Project now?"
"Jinpei..." She reached for the first thing she could think of. "Let's talk about that later. Right now, we're going to get in trouble if we don't hurry and make it upstairs for lunch."
Not waiting for him, Jun got up and left, wanting to leave the conversation and its troubling thoughts as far behind as possible. It wasn't to be.
Round and round, as she sat and ate her lunch, did all she'd learned revealed itself over and over in her mind. She wanted to be with the boys, but she didn't want to kill. Their enemies were evil and would kill them if given the chance, so to protect themselves and others they had to. If Galactor would kill people, and nothing would change that, they should probably be killed to save the innocent. But could she do it? Could she do it for the people, for the boys? And did she really want to know?
The boys left for their afternoon duties and Jun watched them go with regret. One day, they might get up and leave, just like this and never return. She would never know which day it'd be. She would never have a chance to save them if they needed her. But could she kill? How truly evil were their enemies? From what Ryu said they sounded very much so. But she wasn't sure. Was there some way to be sure?
Jun stumbled through their lessons with Pho only partially there. Her previous questions beat at her, like weights. She needed answers. How could she get them? As they gathered up their things, an idea lit inside her.
"Jinpei, let's go upstairs."
They went up and deposited their books in their room. Jun shushed her brother into silence as she took his hand and instead of going back down as they normally did, she took them up. There was one place that would have information. One place that would have all there was to know about these bad men and their true evil-Nambu's office upstairs.
The door to the room was unlocked and after thanking the spirits for that bit of luck, they sneaked inside.
Sticking close to his sister, Jinpei stared at her with wide eyes. "Neechan, what are we doing here?" His voice was barely above a whisper.
"I need to find out some things. We won't be long."
Jun approached Nambu's desk, which at the moment was immaculate. No papers sat on the top or on the two small plastic shelves. She tried the drawer set before the large leather chair and found it locked. She then tried all the cabinets covering the side wall but all of them were locked as well. "Damn it!"
She looked sheepishly back at her brother. "Sorry."
Jun looked over the room trying to find anything else that might hold information which might not be locked. She found nothing.
"Come on, we'd better go before we get caught." Feeling frustrated Jun took her brother in hand and left.
"What were you looking for, neechan?"
Jun bit her lip. "I, I wanted to find information on those bad men, I want to see how really bad they are."
"Hakase will be back tonight, can't we just ask him?"
Jun shook her head. "No, we can't. You know that."
"Is it really important, neechan?" Jinpei stared at her with trusting eyes.
Jun sat down in a chair in the TV room feeling incredibly drained. "Yes, it could be... But the drawers are all locked. There's no way we can see it."
"Doesn't hakase unlock them when he's here?"
"Probably." Jun stared at her hands. What was she to do now?
"So, all we'd have to do is get him away after he's opened them so you could take a look, right?"
Jun looked up at him. "Yes, that's right."
He smiled, puffing up his chest. "I'll do it for you!"
"What?" Jun had no idea what he was talking about.
"I'll get hakase away so you can look." His eyes were sparkling. "I can do it! I have a plan."
Though she pried and prodded at him, her brother wouldn't divulge what he had in mind. Jun alternatively felt excitement and worry. Between that and the fact the boys were gone to practice and she had no idea how they fared, Jun thought she might explode from anxiousness before the time for dinner arrived.
Jun eagerly watched for them as the boys came to the kitchen, laughing and happy as if all were right with the world. She felt hot and cold, the knowledge they were all right washing through her even as the certainty beat at her that she would have to go through it again tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, and forever more.
Jun felt prickly as they all went off to watch TV and play games after dinner. She kept an eye and all four of them, not able to see enough of them, the tension so tight inside her that she felt ill inside.
As in the last couple of days, Nambu had disappeared immediately after dinner to his office upstairs. When they all went up to turn in, Jinpei bounded happily down the hall grinning at her.
"Jinpei, tell me what your plan is." Jun felt on edge.
"Nope. It's a surprise!"
Jun had to restrain herself from reaching out and smacking him on the head. "Jinpei, this is serious! I need to know what your plan is. I need to make sure it won't get you in trouble."
"It'll work, neechan. I promise!"
Jun felt none of the certainty that radiated in his smile.
For an hour, they waited as the house fell silent around them. Nervously pacing in her darkened room, Jun almost jumped when her brother sneaked over from across the hall and opened her door.
"Is it time, neechan?"
Jun wasn't sure she trusted the bright gleam in his eyes. "Y-yes. It's time." She moved towards him. "Tell me about your plan."
"Nope!" He hopped away from her. "I gotta go downstairs for a minute though. I'll be right back!"
Before she could try and stop him, her brother was gone. Jun had no choice but to go out to the stairwell and wait for him.
When he returned, Jinpei carried with him a tall glass of juice. "I'm ready now."
"Jinpei..." She should stop this, she knew she should. She had no idea what her brother planned and it worried her.
"Neechan, I'm going to take care of it." He was adamant.
Jun sighed. "All right. Let's get it over with."
Silently, the two of them went up the stairs to the third floor. Nambu's office door sat mostly closed, light shinning out into the hallway from within. Jun moved on to a storage room across from the office and stepped inside, leaving her door open just enough so she could see into the other room.
Once she was out of sight, Jinpei waved at her and opened Nambu's door wide.
Nambu's desk, unlike earlier, was now stacked with masses of paper. The doctor was busy scribbling on a pad as he perused a number of them, even as Jinpei made a beeline for the desk. Nambu never noticed him.
Jinpei marched forward holding his glass out before him like a monk carrying a holy relic, and stopped around the side of the desk. "Hakase."
Nambu blinked, his head jerking up, for the first time aware of the boy's presence. "Jinpei, what are you doing here?" With an absent-minded gesture, Nambu pushed his glasses farther up the bridge of his nose.
"I got thirsty and went and got something to drink," the boy answered. "Then I thought that you might be thirsty too." Jinpei stood expectantly as if his answer had said all that would ever be needed to be said on the subject.
Jun frowned as she barely heard what Jinpei said. While still not totally sure of what he had in mind, it still bothered her how lying just seemed to come so naturally to him. She'd have to lecture him long and hard about it later.
"Uhm, that was very thoughtful of you." The doctor seemed slightly out of sorts on what to do.
"Here, drink up!" Jinpei rushed forward as he spoke.
Jun watched, eyes wide, as Nambu turned at the boy's quick approach even as Jinpei masterfully made himself trip, and sent a stream of bright orange flowing from the glass. The liquid missile splashed dead on Nambu's chest, spreading over his crisp shirt, his jacket, and his pants.
Nambu gasped and jumped to his feet as the cold liquid soaked into his skin. The juice dripped off him even as Jinpei abruptly retreated in panic, his eyes round, almost as if for the first time truly realizing the consequences of the plan he'd put into action. "I'm sorry, hakase. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
Nambu looked down at his clothes in disgust, but when he looked up at Jinpei there was no anger in his eyes. "It was an accident. It's all right."
"I'm so sorry!" Tears poured down Jinpei's face.
Jun wasn't sure if they were real or not.
Nambu awkwardly stepped over to him as he began to sob. "Come now, there's no need for that. It's not like you'd meant to do it."
Jinpei suddenly cried harder. Jun bit her lip feeling for him.
Nambu stared at the crying boy looking lost as to what to do with him. "Jinpei, please." The doctor stared about the office looking for help or inspiration.
Jun felt her cheeks grow hot, feeling incredibly guilty though she'd had no idea of what Jinpei had had in mind.
"Say, tell you what. You've never seen my room, have you? Why don't the two of us go there so I can get changed and then we can go on down to the kitchen. We can get some more juice and then come back here to clean up the rest of the mess. What do you say?" He knelt down before the still crying boy, his eyes desperate.
Jinpei hiccuped and slowly nodded. He used his shirt to wipe away at his runny nose. "O-okay."
Nambu sighed with relief. "Wonderful."
Jun backed up and totally closed her door as the two of them moved to leave the office. She waited for several seconds after she could no longer hear them in the hall and came out.
Jun dashed into Nambu's office and headed immediately towards the desk. Amidst some soaking papers, she spotted a folder marked Utoland Earthquake. She decided to look through that first.
Inside, Jun found report after report talking of things she didn't understand. There were charts and maps with things marked epicenter, numbers talking of something called a Richter Scale, and paper after paper on fault lines and tectonic plates. Written on a few of these margins were small, neat handwritten words. The ones that mostly caught her eyes were the ones that said-Not Natural. Possibly Produced? Construction on a huge scale or possibly something more dangerous?
Jun set the folder aside and quickly browsed through some of the others. One was full of drawings and a lot of technical words she didn't know the meaning of. The drawings themselves were strange. Some were of machines that looked like they could fly, but were not airplanes. Others were of people in strange clothes, clothes that made them looked like birds.
Still, none of that showed her what she'd really come to look for. As thoroughly as possible, Jun put everything back as she'd found it. Then she turned her attentions to the file cabinets against the wall.
Jun randomly opened the middle drawer of the one closest to her and opened folder after folder to see what was inside. She found charts, graphs, and report after report but she didn't know enough to figure out what they meant.
Jun glanced nervously over her shoulder knowing her time was growing shorter by the second and she'd still been unable to find anything of worth to her. Closing the drawer, she opened the one below it. She'd gone through half of the folders there and was beginning to despair she'd find nothing when her gaze caught sight of an eight by ten glossy picture. Quickly, she pulled it out to look at it and then froze.
In bright, crisp color, the picture showed three stiffened bodies laid out side by side on muddied grass. Two of the bodies were those of men, and the third might have been that of a woman, but the body was so mangled it was hard to tell. All three were covered with dried, crusted blood and large holes punctured them where a flood of bullets had drilled into them. On the border of the picture, in the same handwriting she'd encountered before were the words Galactor Assassination.
Jun shuddered, her blood cold, as she put the picture back. The next folder had another picture, and her hand shook slightly as she pulled it out as well.
Each folder from then on held from one to eight pictures. Some had bodies as mangled as the ones she'd first seen. Others showed burned out husks of cars and homes, destroyed offices, or blood stained alleyways. On every one of them she found Nambu's neat handwriting. Some of the words kept repeating themselves-assassination, abduction, Galactor.
Hand numbing fear coursed through her as she put the last of them back into the folder and closed it with unsteady hands. The enemy was evil. It was more evil and cruel than she had ever thought they could be. Having seen more than enough, Jun slipped out of the room before Nambu and her brother could return.
Shivering, though it wasn't cold, Jun slipped back into her room and changed clothes in the dark. Flashes of the pictures she'd seen kept rising in her mind's eye though she had no desire for them. The boys were supposed to fight this? How could they win against such cold-blooded people? Some of the victims she'd seen had been children! If they'd kill them, they'd never hesitate to kill the boys. Would she and Jinpei really be able to make any difference?
Jun felt bitter tears trying to rise in her eyes as she crawled into her bed and pushed them back. She understood Ryu's reasons now, more so Joe's.
"I'm sorry again, hakase."
Jun stiffened as she heard her brother's voice out in the hallway.
"No problem. We got it all cleaned up so it's all fixed," Nambu replied.
Jun wondered how he could stand it, how he could stand to look at those awful pictures, how he could stand knowing what those people might do to the boys. It made her hurt inside.
"I'll see you tomorrow."
"Good night, hakase!"
Jun quickly tried to push all those thoughts out of her head and pushed to only breathe and relax. Any minute now, Jinpei would be coming inside to see how she had fared and to give her his own story of events. She had to make sure he didn't catch a hint that anything was wrong.
When the alarm was about to go off, Jun stared at it and got up to turn it off. She hadn't been able to sleep. She'd felt intermittently hot and cold, as she'd tossed and turned on her bed unable to rest.
As she'd expected, Jinpei had come to see her not long after Nambu had gone only too eager to tell her about all that had happened, especially after he and Nambu had left the office. When he'd questioned her about what she'd been looking for, she'd had to turn away and said only that Galactor was definitely evil. Surprisingly, the lack of detail on her part hadn't seemed to bother her brother and he'd taken her at her word. He'd been so excited about it all, she'd been hard pressed to send him off to bed.
Jun rubbed her eyes feeling heavy and tired. Maybe practicing tonight wasn't such a good idea. She'd yet to get any sleep and Jinpei had stayed up late. Perhaps it'd be best if they skipped it-she still had so much to think about...
She'd just about made up her mind to get back into bed, when Jinpei peeked in to the room.
"Neechan, are you ready yet?"
"Jinpei?" Jun stared at him in surprise, figuring that if she'd decided to practice he would have been harder to wake than the dead.
He grinned at her. "I set my own alarm," he declared proudly. "Ryu showed me how. I wanted to make sure we didn't miss practice again."
Jun sighed. "All right, just give me a minute okay?"
They practiced hard, Jun finding the more she had to concentrate on what she was doing, the less room there was for thinking, questioning, and more importantly, feeling.
She wiped the gathering perspiration off her brow and the tickling drops that had slipped towards the back of her neck as she and Jinpei successfully finished grabbing the red kerchief thus ending this latest test. She bent over, and placed her hands on her thighs, taking a moment to get her breath back before shoving off towards the control room to set up their next program.
"Neechan, not so hard this time, please?" Jinpei whined at her from where he lay on the floor, trying to grab a minute of rest.
Jun barely nodded, a half, tired grin tugging at her mouth, as she opened the door to the control room. Maybe she was overdoing it. It wouldn't do to get them hurt just so she wouldn't have to think. They'd do one more easy exercise and then stop for the night.
As she walked into the room and headed towards the controls, Jun suddenly stopped and froze like a deer caught in the road by a pair of headlights. Her heart skipped a beat within her chest as it became immediately obvious she wasn't alone.
"Gotcha." Joe grinned smugly, leaning easily up against the console.
"Joe!" Ken stood beside him, a slight flush in his cheeks. He looked at Jun with an expression of embarrassed apology in his eyes.
"I'd told Ken here that I knew you and your brother were up to something. Now I've proved it." Joe's eyes shone.
Jun found she could barely breathe, her chest growing tighter and tighter. Why now? Why had they found them now? She wasn't ready. She didn't know yet! "I-" Her head began to pound.
"Jun," Ken's earnest eyes met her own, "why do all this?"
Jun bit her lip. There were so many reasons. But would they understand them? And really in the end, what did she expect?
"Neechan, what-" Jinpei walked into the room and staggered to a halt as she spotted the others. "Aniki?"
"Jinpei, run!" Without stopping to think, Jun grabbed her brother's arm and dashed for the door leading out into the hall.
She felt her heart constrict at Ken's panicked plea but she couldn't; wouldn't stop. She wasn't ready. She couldn't talk to them now. Everything was falling apart around them!
Jun ran and didn't stop though Jinpei balked beside her until she'd gotten them back to her room. She let go of her brother's hand and closed and locked the door. She stepped back away from it dread pouring through her soul.
"Ne, neechan, why-why did we run?"
Jun looked away at her brother's open confusion not knowing what to say. "Jinpei, I-" Her throat grew tight.
She wanted a family for him, for them-and she'd thought she'd found it. But there was the Project; it was always the Project, and it had come between them. She'd been able to put it off for a time, but... Something warm coursed down her cheek.
"Neechan?" Jinpei ran forward a worried look on his face.
A sob racked through her unexpectedly, bringing her to her knees. Jun hid her face in her hands, trying vainly to stop but her misery wasn't to be held back any longer. Jinpei came close and hugged her tight but this only served to make her cry even harder.
She wanted so much for them! So much! But she was afraid, afraid. She knew what they had to do so all she ever wanted would be theirs. She could kill for them, she would, and Jinpei would follow. But was it right? Could she actually help and keep them from getting killed? The enemy was so strong! And then there was no guarantee the others would even have them. All her doubts and fears hovered over like buzzards waiting for the kill as Jinpei held on to her and she cried.
Jun felt herself being shaken and slowly opened her eyes. Her brother's face spun before her.
"Neechan, you have to get up." His young face stared into hers with concern. "It's time for breakfast."
Jun felt heavy, as if every part of her body had changed to leaden weights. Just keeping her eyes open was an almost impossible task. Her brain was muddled and though she heard her brother's words, she was having a hard making sense of them. "J-Jinpei?" She shivered beneath her covers suddenly cold. A small moan escaped her lips.
"Neechan?" Jinpei reached forward and touched her forehead. "You feel hot. What's the matter?" There was an edge of fear in the question.
It didn't mean anything to her. "Let me sleep..." Her eyes closed on their own.
"I'm going to go get Pho. I'll be right back."
Jun moaned softly again, unhappy her brother had gone but not sure why. She didn't like being unhappy; unhappy was bad. And she'd been so unhappy lately...
She'd almost drifted down to sleep again when a cool touch caressed her forehead bringing her back up.
"She is very hot."
Jun easily recognized Pho's voice. It made her feel more at ease and yet nervous at the same time.
"Jinpei, go get my husband. Tell him to bring his herbs."
"Yes, Pho-san." Jun heard her brother run out of the room.
"Jun, it's Pho." The cool touch moved to Jun's cheeks. "I need for you to wake up for me. Try looking at me and tell me how you feel."
The meanings of Pho's words weren't immediately clear to Jun. She tried hard to understand them, somehow knowing it was important to, and when she thought she did, Jun put some effort into at least partially opening her eyes. "Pho-san?"
"Yes, dear, it's me." Pho's face swam before her. "Can you tell me how you're feeling?"
It was several moments before Jun could process the question to where she could understand it. It took her even longer to answer. "Tired, so tired. Dizzy. Heavy. Want to sleep." Jun felt Pho's hands cover her own.
"Not quite yet," she said. "Pham will be here soon and he will want to speak with you. After he's done, then you can sleep." Her soft touch rose to Jun's brow again.
Jun kept her eyes partially open without really seeing her surroundings. She used Pho's voice as an anchor to the conscious world. Soon, it was joined by others.
A harsh smell intruded into her nose, and Jun's eyes grew wide as her body protested the intrusion. Something seemed incredibly familiar about the stench, but she couldn't place it. Her mind cleared a little more.
"Jun, it's Pham."
Her eyes focused enough to see his face.
"We're going to help you sit up a bit."
Jun blinked as two sets of hands eased themselves beneath her and brought her up and forward before letting her settle back down in a reclining position. Her head turned to the side as they set her down and Jun momentarily had a clear view of the open doorway and the four worried faces crowded there looking in.
A wave of sadness coursed through her without explanation and brought tears to her eyes.
"Jun, what's the matter?" Pho leaned towards her inadvertently blocking her view.
Tears rolled silently down Jun's cheeks though her still muddled mind wouldn't tell her why. "Tired..."
"Here child, drink this." Pham gently held a cup up to Jun's lips. He tipped it slightly, so she could drink.
Jun's face grimaced at the sour, bitter taste but drank all he gave her anyway.
"Sleep now." Pham's voice was soft and close to her ear. "You should be feeling better when you awaken."
Jun let her eyes close and was soon adrift.
"No!" Jun gasped her eyes opening wide even as she jerked upright in the bed.
She looked about her rapidly, at first not recognizing her own room. She shivered her body covered in perspiration, as she realized the horror had been a bad dream. Happy and oblivious, she and Jinpei had spent the day training in the simulation room while the boys had gone to war in strange bird like costumes. Later in the nightmare, she'd gone to talk to Nambu only to see him making a new folder for his files. Jun had come and looked at them later only to find pictures of Ken, Joe, and Ryu's bloodied and mutilated bodies inside. She shuddered at the memory. They couldn't be allowed to end up that way!
Slowly, Jun realized the light coming from the window was too bright and not direct. Frowning, she looked at her clock, which said it was past two. Past two? What was she doing in bed past two?
The door to her room opened, and Jun turned quickly away so she could wipe away her tears before anyone would see them.
"Ah, you're awake."
Jun forced a smile on her face and turned back to look at Pham. "I-I just woke up." She yearned to ask what she was doing here, why she was in bed, even as foggy, vague memories teased her mind.
Pham approached the bed and touched her forehead. "Looks like the fever has broken."
She'd had a fever? Jun looked away.
"How do you feel?"
Jun stared at her hands, not sure how to truthfully answer the question. "I'm okay."
"Everyone has been most concerned for you." Pham gingerly sat down at the edge of her bed.
Jun continued to stare at her hands, her cheeks feeling hot, a pang of guilt rushing through her. "I hadn't meant to worry anyone."
Pham nodded. "May I ask a question?"
Jun felt her heart skip a beat. Something about his tone made her very apprehensive. Still, what could she say? So she nodded, not entirely trusting herself to speak.
"I have noticed you have not seemed yourself of late. Pho and I have waited, hoping you would come to us, but you have not. Still, your burden has now become so heavy it has made you ill. Will you not share it with me, so we can ease it from you if we can?"
Jun felt tears sting her eyes. She couldn't bring herself to meet Pham's trusting gaze. Had Ken and Joe spoken to him that morning? Had they told him what they knew? That was if he hadn't already figured it out for himself. Jun knew he and his wife knew a lot more of what went on than they let on. And since the others had already uncovered her biggest secret, how much longer would it be before they all guessed everything else? "My, my family is slowly being torn apart. And I, and I'm not sure how to stop it..." Saying the truth out loud made her well with despair.
"Ah, I see." His reply was very soft.
Jun wanted to run away and hide. But there was nowhere to go; nothing she could do. "What brought the five of us together is now pulling us away. I-I know of something I could do to fix it, but I'm afraid. I'm not sure if we could do enough, I'm not sure if it is right for us. And even then, I'm not sure we would be allowed-no matter how good we were."
And that was the problem, the one thing she couldn't get past. It was a certainty to her the horror Galactor would attempt to inflict upon the world. Though she didn't know how much good it would do, she was certain she would do all she could to protect her family and the Earth as well. Yet the part she feared most, regardless of her convictions, was that neither the boys nor Nambu would welcome that help.
"I have spoken with your brother," Pham said.
Jun tensed at his words.
"He has told me what you have done. He has also told me what is in his heart." Pham's voice grew soft. "I believe the two of you are of one mind in this. And it is possible that perhaps I might be able to help with at least one of the obstacles remaining in your way."
Jun stared at him wide eyed. What was he saying? "But sensei-"
He raised a hand to still her words. "Tomorrow, come to the simulation room in the afternoon and we shall see what occurs. As my wife is so fond of saying-no one can deny their fate."
Jun stared after him speechless as he got up and left the room, a small, amused smile on his face. She was still reeling in a daze when Pho came in with Jinpei, carrying in a tray of steaming food.
Pho gave her tooth-gaped smile. "I hope you're hungry. I'm expecting you to eat every bite." She gently set the tray on Jun's lap.
Jinpei was hiding behind Pho, occasionally looking past her to take a peek at his sister.
Jun stared at the food, not sure she could eat until the scent of the chicken vegetable soup teased her nose and suddenly made her mouth water. She dug in.
"Pham says your fever has broken." She gave Jun a proud wink. "His concoctions usually work better than most anything. Though Braun would dispute that to his dying breath, if anyone ever gave him the chance that is." She chuckled for a moment. "I'm glad you're all right." Tenderly, she moved the hair out of Jun's eyes.
She looked behind her. "Now, Jinpei, I expect you to make sure your sister eats all her dinner." Pho turned to go. "Just bring the dishes down for me when she's through, okay?"
Jinpei nodded quickly staring hard at the floor. Jun wondered what was wrong-this wasn't like him. She waited until Pho had gone before she tried to find out what it might be.
"Yes, neechan?" His voice was small and he looked vulnerable and exposed standing in the middle of the room.
"Are you all right? Do you feel sick?"
He glanced up for a brief moment and then looked away. "I'm not sick." He dug his shoe into the carpet, his hands hidden behind his back.
"What's the matter then?" she asked.
His head hung low as if he were afraid to answer. Jun was growing more and more concerned, the food before her forgotten for the moment.
"Neechan," his voice quivered and he sounded as if he were about to cry. "Sensei asked me some questions... and I, I told him, told him everything." His words turned into a flood. "I was worried, and Ryu said people could die from fevers and when sensei said he might help, please don't be mad at me!"
Jun stared at him, hurting inside, suddenly realizing she'd not been the only one suffering because of their secrets. "I'm not mad," she said it as kindly as she could. "It's all right. I'm not going to die either."
Jinpei looked up, tears standing in his eyes.
"Have you had dinner?"
He looked away. "No, not yet. Pho-san wanted to get yours done first."
"Then won't you come help me with mine? I can't eat all this all by myself."
His face instantly brightened. "Okay!"
Jun ate more than she thought she would and once both of them were done, sent Jinpei downstairs with the tray. She settled back down in her pillows thinking of maybe going to sleep when Nambu showed up at her door.
"Jun? How are you feeling?"
Tense, Jun had to force her mouth to work. "Much, much better, hakase."
"Hm, Pham seems to think so as well." He looked her up and down as if making his own estimation. "Well, if you feel bad again tomorrow, have Pho call me and I will take you in to see Dr. Braun."
Jun nodded quickly. "Yes, hakase." Her heart beat loudly in her ears.
He gave her a light smile. "I'm glad you're all right. I'll see you later."
"Thank you, hakase." Jun watched him go. Neither Pham nor the boys must have told him of what they knew. Strangely, she wasn't at all sure whether she should feel relieved or not.
After he'd gone, Jun tried to go to sleep but it evaded her. Looking for something to do, so she could avoid her thoughts, she spotted some of her books and got up long enough to get one to read. She'd been at it for over a half-hour or so when a soft knock at the door made her look up.
Jun forgot to breathe as Ken shyly glanced in her direction from the doorway.
"Hi. May I come in? I'd like to talk to you if you're not feeling too tired." His cheeks were slightly flushed.
"Please?" His blue eyes pleaded with her own.
Jun looked away.
Ken had come to ask questions-there was no other reason he'd be here. She should have expected it. She bit her lip trying to figure out what to do.
She could tell him she was too tired-he'd given her the choice. But it wouldn't be true and he'd know it. Her secret was out, there was no denying it, and at least they hadn't told Nambu. There really was no point in putting it off though she'd like nothing better. At least he'd come alone and not with the others...
"All right..." Jun nodded slowly but didn't look at him as he came in. She looked up in surprise, however, as she heard the door close shut.
"Sensei said you're doing much better." His eyes sought hers so Jun looked away. "We were all very happy to hear that."
Jun nodded saying nothing. She stared at her lap.
"I never... I never thanked you for saving my life."
Jun heard him hesitate a moment. She looked over at him despite herself, surprised by his words.
Jun hurriedly looked away as her eyes met his, not knowing what to say. It didn't escape her though how this conversation in so many ways paralleled the one she'd had with Ryu. "I-I was happy to help."
She heard Ken move a little closer. Jun felt her heart beat more rapidly inside her chest.
"I also wanted to apologize for last night. We hadn't meant to run you off like that." He shook his head. "It's just once Joe gets something in his head, he won't let it go till he proves things out one way or the other."
Jun said nothing.
"You were amazing, you know. The stuff is hard enough to do without having to worry about the controls, and you learned both on your own. It's very impressive."
Jun looked up at him confused not sure what to make of the admiration she thought she was hearing in his voice. Ken looked away.
"There's just one thing I don't understand." Jun had to strain to hear him. "Why? Why would you want to go through all that trouble?"
Jun stared once more at her hands. She wasn't any surer on how to answer the question today than she had been last night. "There's, there's a lot of reasons."
An uneasy silence hung between them.
"Would you tell me what they are? It could be important."
Jun frowned at that, not sure what he could mean and too afraid to ask. What should she say? "At first it was because... Because Jinpei and I were being left behind." Jun felt her throat grow tight at the admission. "We'd found something precious to us when we came here, when we got to stay, and we didn't want to lose it." Jun hesitated waiting to see if he would laugh at her words. He did no such thing.
"Then, after your accident, I-I realized the danger you would all be in with Galactor. It made it real to me. It scared me." Jun squeezed her hands tight. "I've seen the things Galactor will do, I-I checked hakase's files. They're evil and they should be stopped, and I, and I think Jinpei and I could help do that." Jun sat absolutely still sure he would laugh at her now.
"You got into Nambu's files?"
Jun bowed her head low.
"You and your brother really are amazing!" Ken came closer still.
Startled by his response, Jun looked up at him.
"Do you really think you'd like to join the team?" His eyes were bright, his expression eager.
"I-yes, yes we would." She still didn't think it was possible, but it was what she actually wanted.
Ken nodded looking pleased. "Then come to our practice tomorrow afternoon. Joe probably won't like it, but I don't think Ryu will be a problem. And after I explain what's been going on to sensei, I think he'll like it better if you practice with us than on your own." His eyes shone brightly. "Once you've proven to all of them what you can do, we can go on from there."
Jun found her hopes rising, getting caught up in the quiet excitement she could see in Ken's face. She tried clamping down on it before it went too far. "What about Nambu Hakase?"
Ken smiled brightly. "Let's just deal with this first." His smile grew mischievous. "Though I have a feeling once we're ready for him, he won't know what hit him."
Ken bid her good night and left not long after. Jun watched him go her insides in chaos. He made it sound so easy! But only if they somehow made it past tomorrow would she dare allow herself the luxury of hope.
Jun woke up early the next morning, an hour before her alarm was set to ring. She tried to go back to sleep, but her body wouldn't let her, she was just too strung up to relax. Jun felt tense, nervous, and excited all at the same time. She'd not said a word to Jinpei about what they would be doing that day, knowing if she had, he would have been worse off than she was.
Jun paced in her room watching the minutes tick by, going over all the questions and arguments she might have to face in the afternoon hours. If she could somehow win this, even if in the end she didn't win against Nambu, it would still make things better than before-at least for a while. She'd have to deal with how she would handle things later once the boys were out on the field.
When it was actually time for her to get up, Jun crossed the hall and awakened Jinpei. She helped him get ready and then the two of them went downstairs for breakfast.
Jun didn't miss Pho's knowing looks as they ate and then sent them off downstairs for their morning routine. Nervously, Jun dressed and joined the others in the matted training room. They received the usual greetings, though Ken's eyes seemed unusually bright. Jun felt Joe staring at her every once in a while, his face more serious than usual. Did he suspect what Ken had in mind or was there something else going on?
Ryu stopped her as soon as class was over. Shyly, he looked her over. "Are you feeling okay now, Jun?"
His concern made her feel good inside and yet guilty about the secrets she still held. "I'm fine. Sensei fixed me right up." She gave him her warmest smile.
"I'm glad," he said.
As they went on to lunch and the time for the afternoon session grew closer, Jun found her apprehension growing. She found the feeling eased just a bit, when Ken sent her an encouraging and excited look. Jun smiled a little at his support.
She quickly looked down at her plate, however, when she noticed Joe staring at the two of them a perplexed look on his face.
After the boys had left to go study, Jun and Jinpei helped Pho with the dishes and then got on with their own lessons. Jun found herself staring at the clock more and more as the time for their testing drew near.
"Well, I guess that will be enough for today." Pho closed the book they'd been reading and gave them both a small knowing smile. "Go ahead and run along. Pham will be waiting for you. Good luck."
Jun nodded quickly, not trusting herself to speak, and hurried upstairs to put up their books and change clothes.
"Neechan, why are we changing?" Jinpei looked confused.
"I have a surprise for you today, that's why."
Though he badgered her as to what she meant, Jun said nothing. Her nervousness was now tinged heavily with anticipation.
Once they were dressed, the two of them rushed downstairs. Pham looked up from the controls as they came in.
"Do the two of you feel ready?" he asked.
Jun nodded, barely hesitating, though she knew after this there would be no turning back.
"Are we ready for what, neechan?" Jinpei stared at her, hope flashing in his eyes.
She didn't get a chance to answer him.
"What are they doing here?"
Jun turned around at the sound of Joe's angry voice. Ken and Ryu were with him.
"I invited them, that's what. Jun and Jinpei are going to practice with us." Ken stood before his friend, his gaze and stance calm and assured.
"I invited them as well, young Joe," Pham added.
This brought startled looks even from Ken. Pham smiled.
"Are you both nuts?" Joe stared from one to the other of them and then took a half step back as if thinking their condition contagious.
"Joe, they want to join the team. You saw them. You know they have what it takes." Ken moved to stand by Jun and her brother.
"But, they could get hurt." The protest came from Ryu.
"And they'd have to kill." Joe's tone was harsh. "Are they ready for that?"
Ken was about to answer, but Jun stepped up past him before he could. She knew deep down that in order for the others to accept them, this was a battle she'd have to win on her own. "We want this. We're ready."
Jinpei concurred at her side.
"Joe, you told me once that if I wanted something I should fight for it no matter what anyone else thought. Well, I want this and I'll fight for it."
Joe didn't look happy. "You're all stinking crazy!"
Jun felt a tinge of anger. "Why? Why are we crazy? What's wrong with wanting to fight to save our planet? What makes it so right for you to do it and not for us?"
"Yeah! Why not?" Jinpei made a face at Joe. He backed off quickly, however, as Joe growled at him.
Ryu stood by Joe, looking lost and confused. "W-won't this put us behind?"
"As a matter of fact, no." Ken came forward. "Joe and I saw them practicing in this room not two days ago. They're not far behind us at all."
"We'll prove it too. Won't we, neechan?" Jinpei looked over at Jun his face and form full of confidence.
"Yes," Jun said, "give us any test you want. We're not going to be the ones to hold you back." She surprised herself by her own heat.
"A test would be a wise idea." Pham looked out at the others. "It might give everyone a better perspective of their skills."
"If sensei feels they pass, they're in." Ken stared at Ryu and Joe. "Agreed?"
Joe frowned, obviously not liking the proposition.
"Joe, we need more members, you know that," Ken argued. "They're the best we're going to find."
Joe's frowned deepened.
"I agree." Ryu had a small smile on his face.
"Come on, Joe." Ken stared at his friend intently.
"Shit." He looked at Jun and her brother, at Pham, and then back at Ken. "Whatever."
Pham took that as a yes. "We will start out slowly and then raise the level of difficulty as things progress." He turned to the control board. "Please enter the room so we may begin."
Jun swallowed hard and moved to comply. It was happening, it was really happening!
Ken stopped her with a soft touch on her arm. "I know you'll do fine." He gave her a bright confident smile.
It made Jun suddenly feel warm all over. Now all she had to do was live up to it. "Thanks."
As she entered the padded room, Jun realized that for the first time she wouldn't know what to expect from the simulation. This time, she wasn't the one setting the controls. An excited shiver cut through her-this would be just like what the others went through. Today, she would be treated just like them.
Jinpei stood beside her hopping from one foot to the other waiting for the simulation to begin.
Without warning, three poles thrust themselves from the wall on their right side. Jun and Jinpei acted instinctively and dodged out of the way. They flipped, dodged, and wove as more and more poles thrust out at them.
Laughter bubbled up inside her as she went through the strange dance. Jinpei whooped as he used one pole to swing to another and touched the ceiling.
After another two minutes, they were so busy dodging the increasingly faster poles that at first neither of them noticed the speeding car with its red handkerchief.
"Neechan, over there!"
Jun glanced over her shoulder and was nicked on the leg by a pole. She dropped, grabbed hold of another pole and recovered, switching in mid motion to go after the car.
Moving parallel to one another, Jun and her brother trapped the car between them. Then they moved in for the kill. Together, they grabbed the handkerchief and pulled it off the car. The simulation shut itself down.
Jun found herself grinning from ear to ear, even as Jinpei happily waved the handkerchief towards the one-way glass. He then rushed to the control room to show them his prize. Jun followed more sedately, but no less satisfied, behind him.
As they came in, Jun noticed Ryu staring at them with wide eyes. "Wow! Is that how we look when we're out there?"
"Are we in? Are we in?" Jinpei hopped up and down before the others.
Ken looked over at Pham his eyes bright. "Sensei?"
Their old teacher stood in the back his expression unreadable. Jun felt a moment of doubt as he quietly studied them all.
He suddenly smiled. "Yes. The rest of you would have had a hard time doing better."
"YES!" Jinpei danced with joy.
"They still haven't passed Nambu." Joe leaned against the wall, his arms crossed, a doubtful look on his face.
Jun bit her lip knowing he was right.
"Let's take things one step at a time, young Joe," Pham said. "One step at a time."
Joe didn't look convinced.
"So what now?" This came from Ryu.
"You will practice some easy lessons together-to get used to one another," Pham said.
After giving Jun and Jinpei a few minutes to rest, they went back into the simulation room with the others. Ken was allowed to join them as well, though he was admonished to take it easy. Jun had never seen him look so happy. She'd not felt so happy herself for a long time.
The boys stuck close to them at first like a protective cocoon. Jun was surprised to see Joe sticking to them most of all. Though she knew she was more than capable of handling what Pham threw at them, rather than be annoyed at the boys' actions, it sent tendrils of pleasure through her, seeing they cared for her as much as she did for them. She hoped the moment would never end.
Though awkward at first, the five of them went through the exercises getting accustomed to one another. Jun and Jinpei were already well acquainted with the boys' capabilities. It helped make their incision even easier than any of them would have thought.
That evening, a strange excitement hummed between all of them. Smiles flashed here and there for no reason whatsoever. Jun noticed Nambu raise an eyebrow at their strange behavior but made no comment on it. This pleased her more than she could say.
After dinner, Ken took Jun and Jinpei aside for a moment.
"Guys, I wanted you both to know that I--that I feel real good about this." Ken's clear eyes met theirs and then looked away his cheeks flushed with color. "I know we don't have Nambu's blessing yet, but there's no way he'll turn you down once he sees what you can do."
Jun half dared to believe he was right.
"Until we do show him though, if you're willing, I can start showing the two of you some of the other things you'll need to learn to become part of the team."
Jun felt her heart swell. "That would be wonderful!" She blushed at her emotion, not knowing of a right way to express her gratitude to him. It would be another facet of their lives she'd get to share in.
"That's so cool, aniki! What do we get to learn about?" Jinpei's face glowed.
Ken smiled. "You'll see."
And they did. With great patience, Ken introduced the two of them to the worlds of electronics, physics, chemistry, and demolitions. Jun was alternatively awed and terrified of all the things they were learning and what they would do with that knowledge. It excited her how much like puzzles a lot of these things seemed, her mind running at a thousand miles an hour trying to put things together and finding patterns amongst them.
As Ken taught them more and more each night, Jun felt a little guilty at taking away so much of his free time. She brought the fact up to him more than once, but he always set the objections aside more than eager to teach them. Jun studied hard, to make sure he knew they appreciated it.
As the next few weeks zoomed by, even Joe's previous reticence slowly disappeared. They practiced together everyday and pooled their skills together even as they got used to one another. Ryu acted as if the five of them had always been together like this. To Jun it felt like that and more-it felt right. She couldn't believe she'd ever hesitated.
The thing that was hardest on them all during this time was making sure they didn't discuss anything unusual in Nambu's presence. There'd been a few occasions so far where Jun or one of the others had had to kick Jinpei beneath the table to remind him of the things he wasn't supposed to talk about. Each of them had come close to making the same mistake as well here or there. Sooner or later Jun was sure one of them would slip, but she hoped it would be much much later.
The five of them rushed upstairs to get ready for dinner after having finally defeated a set of complicated simulations devised by Pham. Ryu and Joe stopped abruptly in the front as they turned the corner into the kitchen. Ken almost smacked into them from behind.
"H- hi, Hakase." Ryu didn't move.
Ken cursed lightly under his breath, still out of sight, while Joe held a fake smile. Jun bit her lip, realizing the sudden danger, as she and her brother slowly eased back in the direction they'd come.
"Is Ken with you?" Nambu asked.
Ken sent Jun and Jinpei a signal to stay and then popped into view beside the other two. "Right here, hakase."
"Good." His voice grew nearer. Jun tensed. "I realize you've just finished, but if you're not too tired, I'd like a demonstration of how you're coming along."
"We, we can do that, hakase." Ken threw a quick glance in Jun's direction. "We're ready."
"Right now?" Ryu looked disappointed.
"Yes." Pho's voice came from the kitchen as well. "I thought it'd be better for you to do it before dinner rather than after. The sooner you show Kozaburo what he wants, the sooner you'll get to eat."
Jun was sure the old woman was smiling.
Jinpei pulled on Jun's arm and pointed at Ken. The latter was signaling behind Joe's back for them to go on back downstairs.
Jun held her breath suddenly realizing what he meant. This was it. This was their chance! Without waiting to hear more, Jun quickly turned away and headed for the secret door and palmed it open. Jinpei followed her through.
As soon as the door was closed, they tore off down the stairs. Jinpei followed her a quizzical look on his face. "Neechan, what are we doing?"
"We're going back to the simulation room. Nambu is coming!"
Still looking confused, Jinpei asked no more questions but followed obediently behind her.
With tingling excitement running through her, Jun turned into the control room. Following on through, they entered the simulation room closing the door behind them. Jun moved to stand in the room's right corner as far away from the view of the control room as she could manage.
Fear and exultation poured through her as she realized the time to choose their fate had finally arrived. This day would decide everything for them.
"Neechan, I still don't understand," Jinpei insisted.
She couldn't help but smile. "It's easy, today we're going to show hakase what we can do."
Jinpei's eyes grew round. "Oh."
"But we have to be very quiet right now, all right?"
Her brother nodded vigorously and put himself flat against the wall as she had done.
The next several minutes were sweet torture as they waited for the others to arrive. Suddenly, Jinpei let out a small yelp as the door beside them opened.
Ken walked through, quickly spotting them. A broad smile grew on his face as he saw them and didn't leave as he continued on towards the center of the room. Ryu came through next and winked at them as he walked past. Joe came in last and was momentarily out of view of the control room as he closed the door.
"Give it all you've got," he said. "Nambu won't have any more of a choice than the rest of us." He grinned as he spoke and then moved to join Ken and Ryu.
All of Jun's previous fears and hesitation evaporated. If Joe thought they'd make it, there was nothing to doubt anymore.
Jun squeezed Jinpei's hand and sent him a happy smile. She turned to look with him at the three others that had made their lives complete. Nothing would stand in their way-nothing.